Though abortion is still legal in North Carolina, there is no guarantee that it will remain that way. In fact, North Carolina may be doomed to follow other southern states in limiting or eliminating abortion access.
The current legislature is dominated by anti-choice, anti-abortion Republicans. Senator Phil Berger and Representative Tim Moore are already talking about further restrictions. Their discussion is not about if there will be further restrictions, but what they will be.
The determination to control women and limit their rights was on the NC Republican agenda even before the SCOTUS decision that ended Roe. In 2011 the Republican supermajority enacted the Women’s Right to Know Act over Governor Perdue’s veto. This law instituted a 24 hour waiting period and mandated “counseling” meant to dissuade a patient from seeking an abortion. In 2015 the Women’s and Children’s Protection Act increased the waiting period to 3 days (72 hours) after an initial consultation. Other restrictions include requiring clinic physicians to send records of a patient’s ultrasound to the NC Department of Health and Human Services for abortions performed after 16 weeks and banning abortion providers from receiving any state funding. In the meantime, taxpayer dollars for Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPC’s), that are not licensed health and are established by religious groups, were and still are included in each State budget. More recently, the Republican majority has proposed further restrictions like a “heartbeat bill” which falsely claims that a heartbeat can be detected as early as 6 weeks.
Right now, the only thing keeping Republican leadership from enacting further restrictions is the governor’s veto. Republicans do not have the votes to over-ride a veto by Governor Cooper, a pro-choice Democrat. During his time in office, Cooper has vetoed every bill meant to further restrict abortion.
North Carolina’s Republican leadership is not shy about their intentions if they should succeed in winning a supermajority in the 2022 midterm elections. If Republicans gain just three seats in the state House and two in the state Senate in the 2022 elections, they will have the votes to override the Governor’s veto.
In fact, they have promised to introduce legislation further restricting abortion in January, 2023, when the new legislators are seated.
Citing the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Judge Osteen lifted an injunction that had blocked a 20 week abortion ban. Prior to August 17, abortions in North Carolina were legal until fetal viability at 24-26 weeks. Now abortions in North Carolina are banned at 20 weeks. Although abortions at 20 weeks or later are rare, they are performed because of a critical health emergency.
The impact of this decision will be felt immediately by women who find themselves in a tragic situation. To get the health care they need, they will have to travel to another state at a crisis point of their lives and pregnancy. This is not just cruel. It is dangerous. Physicians have already gone on record saying that this ruling and others that may follow will lead to women’s deaths because it hampers doctors’ ability to provide necessary health care.
If Republicans maintain their majority but do not win a supermajority in 2022, the threat to women’s rights and to legal safe abortion will be pushed to 2024. In that year Lt. Governor Mark Robinson, a fierce opponent of abortion, plans to run for governor. He has publicly stated that abortion is murder and should be recognized as such in North Carolina law. He believes that there should be no exceptions made for rape or incest. He has promoted the idea that once a woman is pregnant, her body is not under her control but a vessel for a microscopic fertilized egg. Robinson’s views are extreme, frightening, and misogynistic, more in line with authoritarian rule than democracy.
The future of reproductive rights, especially the right to a safe abortion, hangs by the thread of the 2022 election in North Carolina.
What can be done?
Though the future of reproductive rights and justice in North Carolina is precarious, there is still reason for hope in the present moment. The recent overwhelming rejection of a Kansas constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion indicates that a motivated electorate can change the expected outcome of an election.
In North Carolina between June 18 and August 13 this year, 28,317 voters registered, a statistic that reflects what is happening in other states. In states across the union, a majority of new voters are women. Although registration does not reveal a voter’s motivation for registering, the correlation between the Dobbs decision and the increase in registration seems clear.
There are also more registered voters in North Carolina now than there were for the 2018 election. Changes in state law this July, allowing people serving a felony sentence on probation or parole have increased the number of NC citizens who may register and vote. In short, as new or different populations enter the voting population, the outcome of any election becomes less predictable, less certain.
In every election, your vote is important. In this election, it is crucial if you are concerned about the future of reproductive rights. Know which candidates on your ballot support reproductive rights. At least two North Carolina organizations publish a list of national and state candidates who do this: Lillian’s List and North Carolina NOW. In this election, the ballot includes more than your federal and state legislators. Be sure to vote the whole ballot. Those “down ballot” will earn experience and influence to use in future contests. For instance, judges graduate to more consequential positions by running in local elections. The power of judges’ rulings was revealed in the Dobb’s decision.
This mid-term election is not just about women. The right to abortion that was enscribed in the Roe decision of 1973 was based on a citizen’s right to privacy. Other important precedents are also based on privacy: gay marriage, interracial marriage, contraception, and In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). Now that the legal pillar of privacy has been cracked, the loss of other rights is just a pen stroke away. Which of these rights will directly affect you or someone you love?
While your vote is the single most consequential act in a democracy, you can help make your vote one among the majority. Tell your family and friends that you plan to vote. Then invite them to go to the polls with you. These simple actions can lead to a powerful outcome. Strength in numbers can begin with a single person.
Gerrie Richards is the president of NC NOW in Chapel Hill and is a former high school English teacher in central New York State. She volunteers with the NAACP and is a painting student, focused on watercolor and mixed media.