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,”
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.
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.”