North Carolina Republican legislators rolled out on Thursday adjustments to the state's new abortion restrictions that are set to take effect in days, addressing some provisions that litigation seeking to block the law's enforcement calls confusing and inconsistent.
GOP senators said the changes offered on the Senate floor were small, designed to affirm the intent of the measure enacted last month over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto that in part would ban starting July 1 nearly all abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy.
“We very much see it as something that is technical and clarifying,” Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, told reporters after the Senate voted for the abortion alterations, tacked on to another pending state health agency bill. “It makes no substantive changes.”
But the language appears to attempt to thwart a federal lawsuit filed last week by Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and a doctor who performs abortions that seeks to declare all or parts of the enacted abortion law unconstitutional. The litigation accelerated Wednesday when those who sued formally asked to block enforcement of a large portion of the law much sooner, before any potential trial. U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles scheduled a hearing for next week on the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction requests.
The lawsuit cited several requirements in the new abortion law that it claims are “unintelligible, inherently contradictory, irrational, and/or otherwise unconstitutional into every part of the abortion process.”
Thursday's legislation, which was placed on the Senate floor with little procedural notice, speaks to many of those provisions. For example, the bill clarifies that medication abortions also are allowed up until 12 weeks of pregnancy and not 10, as critics argued the new abortion law seems to suggest.
Thursday's bill also makes clear that it wouldn't be illegal for someone to help a woman obtain an abortion outside of North Carolina in states where the procedure would remain lawful, and that a lawful abortion is an exception to North Carolina's fetal homicide statute.
Senate Democrats who vehemently opposed the new abortion law in the spring said Thursday's changes could have been avoided if Republicans hadn't rushed through the underlying abortion changes over three days in May. Now, pending litigation is making them act to attempt to fix the problems, said Sen. Sydney Batch, a Wake County Democrat.
“If I were on their side, I absolutely would do this,” said Batch, adding that the language is an "admission that there is actually ambiguity and they're trying to fix it.”
Jillian Riley with Planned Parenthood South Atlantic said separately the new law was “sloppily drafted” and “will result in people being denied the health care they need, no matter how many changes are hastily made behind closed doors.”
All Democrats in attendance Thursday afternoon voted against the bill, which will need one more affirmative vote next week before it goes to the House for consideration. This measure, like the new abortion law, would be subject to Cooper's veto stamp. Republican legislators have veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
The North Carolina Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, which opposed the new abortion law, said in a statement Thursday that it appreciated the willingness of legislators to clarify the rules on medication abortions.
The July 1 abortion law will change existing rules for North Carolina that ban nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, without exceptions for rape or incest. It also adds exceptions, extending the limit through 20 weeks for rape and incest and through 24 weeks for “life-limiting” fetal anomalies.
Abortion-rights advocates say other new rules on patients and providers will make it even harder for poor or rural residents to obtain abortions and could force some abortion clinics to close. Supporters of the new law call the 12-week limit with exceptions a middle ground in one of the few Southern states with relatively easy access to abortion following last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Roe v. Wade ruling.
State Attorney General Josh Stein, a strong abortion-rights supporter and Democratic candidate for governor in 2024, said later Thursday that his office wouldn't defend in court parts of the new abortion law. Stein is listed as a lawsuit defendant because it's the attorney general's job in part to defend state laws.
But “after a thorough review of the case ... I have concluded that many of the provisions in North Carolina’s anti-abortion law are unconstitutional,” Stein wrote in a tweet.
State health officials and local district attorneys also are defendants. By Thursday night, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger had asked Eagles to join the case to defend the challenged portions of the law, citing in part Stein's decision.