N.C. Senate passes “Born-Alive” abortion bill in party-line vote

The N.C. Senate passed a new version of legislation Tuesday that would require doctors to attempt to save the life of any child born as the result of a failed abortion.

Senate Bill 405, the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” is a slightly amended version of a measure vetoed in 2019 by Gov. Roy Cooper. It is expected to pass in the state House and again face a veto Republicans in the General Assembly do not have the votes to overturn.

In tense and sometime emotional debate on the Senate floor Tuesday, Republican Senators told anecdotal stories of infants born after attempted abortions left to die and read testimony from people who said they themselves survived failed abortions.

Democrats said the testimony of survivors does not prove that there is an epidemic of infants being born alive and left to die by uncaring doctors and nurses. Rather, it strengthens the argument that in the rare cases in which children survive failed abortions, medical professionals are already doing their duty to care for infants in their charge.

Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham)

“There are already state and federal laws that protect newborns,” said Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham). “Further, physicians are obligated by medical ethics and licensing regulations to provide appropriate medical treatment just as they are for all types of people. Failure to do so in the manner suggested by this bill could result in loss of credentials, supervision, revocation of their medical license, a malpractice lawsuit and even criminal charges.”

Murdock, whose mother was a pediatric nurse, said Republicans who oppose abortion are attempting to involve themselves in the difficult and complex decisions about care and viability that should be the province of the families and doctors.

Democrats called the bill a stealth challenge to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which established a right to legal abortion. It further stigmatizes the practice, they said, and demonizes doctors who perform the procedure – sometimes in circumstances where the survival of the child is not possible.

Republican Senators said that’s not true, denying that the bill has anything to do with attempts to limit access to legal abortion or overturn Roe v. Wade.

“My entire adult life, whenever I hear folks talk about abortion, the first thing I always hear is ‘my body, my choice,'” said Sen. Todd Johnson (R-Union). “Hadn’t heard much about that in the last year when we’ve been talking about mask mandates and vaccine mandates, but it’s still something I’ve heard my entire life. Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about abortion. We’re talking about a child that is completely separate from the body of its mother. So that begs this one question I’d like each one of you to think about. If somebody has an answer for me, I’d love to have it. When do human rights begin? How old do you have to be to have human rights? Is it five minutes? Is it five months? Is it five years? A child  that is separated from its mother has rights immediately. And all this bill does is mandates that a doctor take care of a living human being.”

Sen. Todd Johnson (R-Union)

But legal experts say a variety of laws already exist to protect infants born under these conditions. They range from the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) to the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act passed by Congress in 2002.

Debate on the legislation this week has been tinged with the language of the culture war over legal abortion in America that has raged for decades. Proponents of the bill have cast it in religious and political terms, with Senators repeatedly referring to the “so-called right to abortion” during debate and political allies arguing bills like S405 are necessary precisely because the courts have rejected Republican efforts to further limit access.

“This bill is even more important now that our 20-week limit on abortion has been challenged in court by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, in a Tuesday committee meeting on the bill. “Because of that lawsuit abortions can be performed up to birth because the abortionist is allowed to determine when the baby is viable under the lower court’s ruling. Unless the lower court’s ruling is overturned, more babies will be born alive during abortions in North Carolina.”

Susanna Birdsong, North Carolina Director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood’s South Atlantic region, called the bill “an attack on medical providers, particularly doctors who provide care to patients experiencing complex pregnancies.”

“This bill is a complete waste of time and taxpayer resources and another distraction from the fact that state lawmakers have not prioritized legislation that would expand access to health care for low-income North Carolinians, improve maternal mortality in the state, or provide workplace accommodations for people who are pregnant,” she said in a Wednesday statement.

The bill passed the Senate on a party-line vote, 28-21. It now heads to the House, where another party-line vote is expected.

The “Born-Alive” bill is one of two abortion-related bills in play this legislative session.

The other, House Bill 453, would prohibit a doctor from performing an abortion if a pregnant woman wants one due to the race of the fetus or the detection of Down syndrome during pregnancy.

NC House votes to repeal state pistol purchase permit system

Proponents say federal background checks will suffice, but critics fear that a loophole for private sales will lead to a spike in murders and suicides 

The North Carolina state House of Representatives okayed a bill (HB 398) that would do away with the state’s pistol purchase permit system. The proposal would repeal current statutory provisions that include a ban on selling certain firearms without a permit, requirements for background checks (including mental health records), and other laws regarding the administration of permit issuance and related record keeping. The measure was approved by a vote of 69-48 Wednesday and referred to Senate Rules Thursday.

The elimination of the pistol purchase permit system does not impact the state’s concealed carry permit system nor do away with the need for North Carolinians to go through the federally-run computer background check when making a purchase at a licensed gun store.

Sheriffs across North Carolina have overseen the issuance of such permits for several decades. In Wednesday’s debate, however, Rep. Jay Adams, R-Catawaba, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said that some urban county sheriff’s offices are overloaded with applications.

Proponents of the bill also noted that numerous lawsuits are filed each year against county sheriffs over the denial of handgun permits and that there’s no state permit required for qualified residents to buy rifles. Instead, they noted, sellers run background checks on individuals who wish to buy rifles through a federal system.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was established by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1998 and operated by the FBI.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association once opposed similar bills in previous sessions. Earlier this year, though, the organization reversed its stance. WRAL reported that the organization said the pistol permit system is outdated and redundant to NICS. The duplication claim was echoed by Adams in a statement after the debate. However, that stands in stark contrast to what the law and research say.

In fact, the pistol purchase permit acts to complement the NICS check. After obtaining a pistol purchase permit, a person does not need to go through the dealer check before purchasing a handgun or multiple long guns in one sale. However, an individual still needs a permit to buy from a licensed seller even though a NICS check is done. A NICS report shows that about 30,000 retailer checks for handguns were completed in North Carolina in 2020, whereas more than 500,000 handgun permit checks were conducted by sheriffs. It’s likely that in most cases, buyers got their pistol purchase permit from sheriffs without being screened a second time by sellers, just as the state law intended.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association guide on the state’s firearms law notes that besides federally-licensed dealers, the permit should be obtained for sales from private transfers, sporting good stores and inheritance. The Brady Law, however, is narrower in focus when it comes to the NICS — it only regulates federally licensed sellers and not private citizens.

“The single largest gap in the federal background check requirement is that unlicensed, private sellers are not required to conduct background checks,” Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence concluded. The organization praised the 22 states that have their own permits and alternatives to NICS for closing these loopholes. That ensures everyone undergoes checks on criminal and domestic abuse history, regardless of where they are to obtain these weapons, the group said.

“States that have pistol purchasing permits have 10% fewer incidents of shootings and homicides because there is that safeguard,” Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, objected. She said she’s concerned that NICS, not a real-time search tool, may not offer assurance that those who can’t lawfully obtain guns are prevented from the sales. She touted the state permit system’s comprehensiveness in including court records, domestic violence and involuntary commitment records. Researchers have identified flaws of NICS, including incomplete records and the Charleston loophole, where buyers can get their hands on guns if the FBI fails to produce a result within three days even if they ultimately fail the background checks.

A national study by the RAND Corporation shows that background checks reduce violent crimes.

In an op-ed in Raleigh’s News & Observer, president of gun rights group Grass Roots North Carolina Paul Valone wrote that the permit system originated from a Jim Crow-era law from 1919, which “once facilitated denial of handguns to blacks under its vague ‘good moral character’ requirement.” However, research suggests that the national NICS is not without racial biases and discrepancies.

Push in the legislature to get better reporting of hate crimes

With increased reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans, advocates for a bill that would expand protections and increase penalties for such crimes said accurate documentation is important to tracking and curtailing them.

Under Senate bill 439, local law enforcement agencies would be required to report hate crimes to the SBI monthly, and the SBI would issue an annual report.

The bill would provide the means to properly identify, track and respond to hate crimes, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam said at a news conference Tuesday.

Training for law enforcement officers would be required.

“For too long, hate crimes have been swept under the rug and ignored,” she said.

 

The bill would expand protections against hate crimes based on ethnicity, gender, gender identity, gender expression, disability, or sexual orientation.

FBI hate crime statistics for 2020 are not yet published.

In an interview, Ricky Leung, senior director of programs at North Carolina Asian Americans Together, said FBI statistics undercount hate crimes.

Stop AAPI Hate started documenting hate crimes with the wave of attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that began soon after the virus that causes COVID-19 was detected in the United States. The group counted 3,795 incidents from last March until February 2021. Eleven percent were assaults.

Bill with new abortion restrictions clears first legislative hurdle

A bill that would further limit legal access to abortion in the state took its first step toward becoming law Tuesday, with a favorable vote in the N.C. House Health Committee.

House Bill 453 would prohibit a doctor from performing an abortion if a pregnant woman wants one due to the race of the fetus or the detection of Down syndrome during pregnancy.

Republican lawmakers argue the law is necessary to prevent doctors from pressuring pregnant women to get abortions and to prevent women aborting children due to race or genetic profiling, which they compare to eugenics.

“As a child psychiatrist, a physician who has spent my life defending the most vulnerable,” said Rep. Kristin Baker (R-Cabarrus), co-chair of the Health committee. “I think we as a society will be judged by whether or not we speak for those who cannot or may not be able to speak for themselves,”

Rep. Kristin Baker (R-Cabarrus)

But Democratic lawmakers and doctors on hand for Tuesday’s hearing said the bill describes a problem that doesn’t exist and aims to place further restrictions on legal abortion in a state that already has too many.

“I am concerned about my physician colleagues’ ethics being called into question,”  said Rep. Gale Adock (D-Wake). “That they are being coerced, that we need a law to help them be ethical in the care of their patients.”

Having spent 45 years as a registered nurse, Adcock said, she believes the narrative of women being pressured into abortion by unethical medical professionals is simply untrue.

Representatives from the North Carolina Medical Society and North Carolina Obstetrical & Gynecological Society were on hand at Tuesday’s hearing, opposing the bill.

“Abortion is a personal decision between a pregnant person and their doctor,” said Dr. Jonas Swartz, an OBGYN at the Duke Gynecology Clinic. “The state should refrain from imposing on the patient’s decision. I’ve never had a patient request an abortion for the reason of race or suggest it was racially motivated. People choose abortion for many reasons. As a provider, I want to provide safe, nonjudgemental and high quality care.”


The bill would make it harder to have open and honest conversations with patients, Swartz said. Doctors work with families to make difficult decisions about whether to abort a pregnancy because it threatens the life of the mother and various other medical reasons, he said. It is difficult enough to support patients making those hard choices without the additional stigma that would come from such a law, he said.

Several families of children with Down syndrome spoke at Tuesday’s committee meeting. But while they suggested that women and doctors decide to abort pregnancies because of Down syndrome, none testified to their own experience having been coerced to do so.

Dr. Wing Ng, a doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation with UNC Health and father of Jaden, a daughter with with Down syndrome, said no doctor should participate in aborting a fetus because of Down syndrome.

“We cannot place the value of one life over another because of disability,” Ng said.  “That is discrimination.”

“The euphemistic notion of ‘women’s choice’ and ‘reproductive health’ hide the ugly truth that this is the killing of innocent lives, lives that have been deemed unworthy of life,” Ng said. “And harkens back to the days of the eugenics movement. Babies with Down syndrome have every right to exist, as God intended. I am pleading to you today that they be afforded that fighting chance to live and to succeed, just as my Jaden did.”

The comments of several who spoke in favor of the bill were anti-abortion in general and tinged with religious language.  One woman testified she once believed God had punished her for an abortion early in her life by giving her a Down syndrome child when later gave birth. She later revised her thinking, she said, and wants to defeat the stigma around Down syndrome and be sure parents don’t abort children because of it.

Maureen Wallace, the mother of a young son with Down syndrome, said the bill does not align with her experience with doctors and focusing on abortion is not the most effective way to combat stigma.

“At no point did a physician coerce us in any way,” Wallace said of her family’s experience.

Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange)


The legislature should focus state energy and money on funding research into and widely publicizing good medical information about Down syndrome, Wallace said. Services and inclusion in society for those with Down syndrome are where the focus should be, Wallace said — not on abortion, with Down syndrome as a Trojan horse.

“Please, do not use Down syndrome as an excuse to further political agendas,” Wallace said. “If you want to prevent abortions of babies with Down syndrome, focus on the true needs here. The solution is education and advocacy.”

The current bill would only have a chilling effect on parents who are already facing difficult decisions about how to handle a pregnancy, Wallace said.

After about an hour of discussion and public comment, the committee reported the bill favorably out of committee 17-9. The bill’s next step is the Judiciary committee.

If the bill finds its way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, it may face a veto. Republicans no longer have the numbers to overturn a veto without Democratic support. Finding that support for new abortion restrictions may be difficult, if Tuesday’s committee discussion is any indication. As is the case with most legislation dealing with abortion, the bill’s proponents and opponents appear to be lining up along partisan lines.

“I find this bill discriminatory against pregnant women,” said Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange). “I cannot imagine anything more threatening than to have someone take control of my body.”

NARAL Pro -Choice North Carolina released a statement Tuesday condemning the bill and the NC Values Coalition released a statement praising it.

““The North Carolina Values Coalition is backing this bill because every child should have the chance to live a full, happy life. We hope that North Carolina will join the leading edge of states enacting protections against the discrimination of unborn children,” said Tami Fitzgerald, Executive Director of the NC Values Coalition, in a statement.

“HB453 is another attempt to politicize abortion care, falsely equating individuals’ personal decisions with our state and country’s long and ugly history of eugenics and racist reproductive coercion,” NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina said in its written statement. “Labeling a patient’s personal choice to have an abortion as ‘eugenics’ is intentionally inflammatory, particularly as we hear stories about immigrants, people who are incarcerated, and people with disabilities who are still being targeted for involuntary sterilization around the U.S. to this day. ”

“The bill proposed by the North Carolina legislature banning abortion based on the reason behind a person’s decision is part of a larger campaign in the state to stigmatize abortion care and create as many barriers as possible,” said Dr. Jamila Perritt, OBGYN and President & CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health. “Abortion is healthcare. Once someone decides to have an abortion, they should be able to access that care in a timely fashion with the support that they need. This means being free from judgement, free from barriers, and free from stigma. As an OB/GYN and provider of abortion care, I urge North Carolina legislators to support the comprehensive health care needs of their constituents, and that means ensuring access to abortion care.”

 

State Rep. Pricey Harrison introduces bill to establish protections for environmental justice communities

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County (Photo: NCGA)

All state agencies would have to consider environmental and public health justice when deciding on whether to approve publicly funded projects, according to a bill filed today by State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County. House Bill 784 would also require the agencies to deny permits for these projects if they would disproportionately burden low-income neighborhoods or communities of color that are protected by Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although many state agencies — transportation, commerce, cultural and natural resources — touch on environmental justice, the bill singles out the NC Department of Environmental Quality because its decisions most often affect these underserved communities.

HB 784 would direct DEQ to deny a permit application for a solid waste facility, such as a landfill, on environmental justice grounds, as defined by federal law.

The state’s solid waste rules already require DEQ to consider cumulative impacts on environmental justice communities for these types of permits. However, DEQ can still approve the permit — and has done so — even if it finds there are environmental justice concerns.

The legislation also would require DEQ to similarly weigh these concerns for major air permits, known as Title V permits. Examples of Title V permit holders are Duke Energy, UNC Chapel Hill’s power plant, Enviva’s four wood pellet facilities, Chemours, and 3M in Pittsboro.

Under HB 784, DEQ and any commission with permitting authority would have to hold at least one public hearing in the overburdened community, provide 60 days’ notice and include in a hearing officer’s report a response to community input. The hearing requirement would be in addition to other legally required public participation.