WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled North Carolina House pushed through anti-abortion legislation on Thursday, using as their vehicle a motorcycle safety bill that lawmakers had stealthily turned into a measure on abortion.
The final vote was 74-41; the bill now heads back to the state Senate for approval.
The legislation (S.B. 353) would bar so-called sex-selective abortions and impose additional regulations on abortion clinics. Public employees and individuals who obtain health coverage through the federal health care law's new public exchanges would also not have access to a plan that includes abortion coverage.
"This is really all about protecting the health and safety of women," said state Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R), one of the main backers of the bill. "Problems do exist in some of our abortion clinics, and that's what we're trying to address."
State Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D) disagreed. "This is an anti-woman bill in disguise, a wolf in sheep’s clothing," she said.
Republicans introduced the legislation in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning by attaching the abortion provisions to a motorcycle safety bill -- without first notifying either the public or their Democratic colleagues.
The House version tweaked a similar measure passed by the Senate -- which itself had been tacked onto a bill banning Sharia law -- and was meant to address some concerns raised by the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who had threatened to veto the Senate bill.
The vote came after three hours of debate on Thursday. The gallery was filled with onlookers who remained quiet until nearly the very end, under threat that if just one person made noise, the entire side of the room would be emptied. (After the debate, as lawmakers praised audience members for their good behavior, one woman yelled out, resulting in the right side of the gallery being cleared.)
Many protesters wore pink, some wore motorcycle helmets and a group of five women wore T-shirts spelling out "SHAME." Supporters of the bill encouraged people to come out and wear blue.
"Like a thief in the night to steal women's reproductive rights, this bill came hurriedly through the Senate, rerouted through the House on a motorcycle, we think," lamented state Rep. Alma Adams (D). "No input from stakeholders, no public scrutiny, no transparency, no fiscal note."
Samuelson, however, defended the process, arguing that it was even more open than usual.
"By doing it the way that we have done it here, we have allowed for there to be a public hearing that we had on Tuesday ... to let the public voice their interests, their concerns about this bill, to let members do the same thing and most importantly, to let the Secretary [Aldona Zofia Wos] of the DHHS [Department of Health and Human Services] address the concerns that she and the governor had with some of the language had been done," she said. "We then took it before a committee and had that committee thoroughly debate that bill, had opportunity for amendments and we're now bringing it back here for a very public process."
Democrats have pointed out that the Tuesday hearing was on the Senate legislation, not the altered House version, and they were not given additional time to study the new bill.
Republicans repeatedly said that they were simply interested in improving the safety of abortion clinics, not in closing them down. State Rep. Michele Presnell (R) was one of the lawmakers who stood up to argue that abortion clinics were unsafe for women.
Democrats, however, argued that measures like S.B. 353 were taking away women's reproductive rights.
"I understand what you're saying," said state Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley (D). "There are exceptions to every rule, and there will be facilities that are like that. But would you prefer her to go to some back alley with a nasty coat hanger?"
Presnell responded by saying she wanted women to be more responsible. "Personally, I'd prefer that she plan ahead, OK? There are a lot of birth procedures that you can take care of in the way of birth control," she replied.
S.B. 353 is called "Health and Safety Law Changes" for short, but its official title underscores the messy process of the legislation; it has 123 words on abortion and just 17 on motorcycles.
"I ride a motorcycle," said Rep. Beverly Earle (D), who spoke out against the bill. "And I want to let my motorcycle buddies know that when I vote against this, it's not because I'm not concerned about their safety on the highways."