Although a woman’s right to abortion is protected at the federal level by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, there is substantial leeway left at the state level to create laws regulating the medical procedure of abortions and the clinics where they take place.
For those on one side of the debate, the year was characterized as a legislative attack on reproductive rights.
But for those on the other side, last year was one of the most positive for the pro-life cause in more than a decade.
A fetal heartbeat
The Women’s Right to Know Act, which added new regulations for performing abortions, was a landmark piece of legislation passed in 2011 over a veto by Gov. Beverly Perdue. The bill — though now under scrutiny by the courts — enacted several new rules.
A woman seeking an abortion must be recited a script by a physician detailing alternatives such as adoption, explaining that government assistance is available for mothers and that the father is required to pay child support if she were to keep the baby.
Barbara Holt, the president of North Carolina Right to Life, said after years of watching legislation she supported not even make it out of committee, the last two have been refreshing for her cause. Not only have Right to Life bills passed, but they have passed with enough numbers to override a governor’s veto. She credits the new Republican majority that swept into power in the state legislature for the change.
“The Democrats had basically controlled North Carolina. We had informed consent bills brought forward before, but they never passed,” Holt said.
Although the Act gained the support of several Democrats, it was a controversial topic among local politicians. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, supported the bill, while Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who is an incumbent member of the N.C. House of Representatives, voted against the bill twice.
“One of the concerns I had about the bill is that it applied the same whether it was 40 year-old-woman considering that procedure or an 11-year-old girl who had been raped by her father,” Rapp said. “It makes no exceptions.”
The bill also mandates a 24-hour waiting period for the abortion. Rapp said the bill needed more revision before it was voted into law.
“We tried to point that out to the bill’s supporters, but they wanted to push it through,” Rapp said. “It’s a problem we’ve had down there all session — there’s been very controversial legislation pushed through without adequate vetting.”
According to the bill, the physician is not only required to perform an ultrasound but also offer to let the mother see a live video feed of the fetus, typically accomplished through a vaginal insert, and listen to its heartbeat.
The physician also has to verbally describe the fetus to the mother, although the mother is allowed to avert her eyes and refuse to see the image of the fetus or not listen to the description.
This section of the law was granted a preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles in October 2011 while the entire law is being reviewed. A hearing is scheduled this January.
For Holt, the injunction of the ultrasound requirement in the law was a setback for her organization’s cause. In 2008, more than 33,000 women had abortions in North Carolina, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The institute also reported one in three American women will have an abortion before she reaches the age of 45.
“Many people are alive today because their mothers changed their minds after seeing the ultrasound,” Holt said. “Sometimes, they find out they have twins.”
Planned Parenthood scuffle
Another controversy at the state level was the fiercely debated and highly symbolic attempt to defund a Planned Parenthood clinic in Durham — but the results weren’t what Republicans were expecting.
At the heart of the issue were federal funds passed to the state and then on to Planned Parenthood to provide family planning services to Latinos. The clinic in Durham received about $120,000 per year in the federal dollars.
However, conservative lawmakers decided to target Planned Parenthood by excluding the organization from receiving the federal family planning funds — known as Title X funds — for services such as sexually transmitted disease testing, health exams and cervical cancer screenings.
Anti-abortion politicians at the state level were uncomfortable with Planned Parenthood’s stance on abortion and the fact that some of its clinics — although not all — provide the abortion procedure.
The link between the government funding and abortion at Planned Parenthood was tenuous at best: the clinic in Durham does not perform abortions, and the medical procedure is explicitly excluded from being covered by the federal family planning funds.
Yet, state lawmakers passed a special provision specifically naming Planned Parenthood as an organization ineligible to receive public funds.
But, a judge challenged the practice of singling out a specific provider and excluding it from the state budget. So, the lawmakers went back to the drawing board and re-wrote the provision to say that only public health departments were eligible to receive public funds, not private organizations, accomplishing the same goal.
Davis and other conservative candidates in WNC have asserted that the move was better for local health departments because the money previously given to Planned Parenthood was instead re-directed to local government health centers providing the same family planning services.
But, the plan backfired.
Planned Parenthood circumvented the state and applied for the same funds directly from the federal government. Only now it was competing with county health departments for the $7.3 million pot of family planning dollars doled out each year to the state from the federal government.
The result: several Planned Parenthood clinics statewide were awarded an additional $1.2 million or so in federal dollars from the state’s allotment of Title X funds than the clinics were previously getting. That meant there was less to go around for county health departments, resulting in a more than 10 percent cut to the departments’ family planning grants.
But even the family planning dollars sent to county health departments are not free from controversy. Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley consistently votes against his county getting these funds because of their association with birth control. He is the only Haywood County commissioner to do so.
“When we get family planning money from state I vote against it,” Ensley said. “I don’t think the state should be handing out condoms and birth control.”
The closest Planned Parenthood clinic, which received new funding, is in Asheville. But vice president of public policy for North Carolina’s Planned Parenthood, Melissa Reed, was wary of calling the new funds a total victory. She predicted a difficult future for the organization in North Carolina with conservative lawmakers in office.
“We anticipate that the Republican majority will continue to pass laws to restrict access to women’s health care,” Reed said. “They will continue to ban Planned Parenthood to provide family planning or sex education.”
The future of abortion in WNC
Looking forward, many issues could be brought before the legislature that could dictate how accessible abortion and perhaps birth control and other reproductive health services are for women in Western North Carolina.
Reed says several issues brought before lawmakers in other states could be passed in North Carolina, like personhood laws that officially define a person as starting at the point of conception or restrictions on abortion facilities.
Isolated by its geography and distance from urban centers, Western North Carolina is served currently by only one abortion facility in Asheville. Apart from that clinic, women seeking an abortion would have to travel to Charlotte or to South Carolina.
“We’re not talking about limiting a small portion of the population,” said Marilyn Chamberlin, director of the Women’s Studies Program at Western Carolina University. “We are talking about limiting an entire region of our state.”
She used the neighboring state of Virginia as an example. Recently state leaders there passed more stringent regulations on abortion facilities. Imposing arduous building codes or medical regulatory hoops to jump through can prove too costly or difficult for smaller clinics to comply with and thus force them to shut down. Also, some states like Mississippi are currently down to one abortion facility due to the tightening of regulations.
But for some state office candidates, eliminating abortion in WNC would be a favorable outcome. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, who describes herself as a staunch pro-life candidate, said the region would be better off without an abortion clinic and sees it as her duty, if elected, to try to prevent the practice. She said she has the endorsement of N.C. Right to Life.
“It would not bother me one bit if every abortion clinic in North Carolina were shut down,” Presnell said. “You’d better believe it. It’s the state’s duty to push back on federal law that supports abortion.”
Reproduction and the political machine
With more than a month before Election Day, the issue of abortion is being used as political leverage in one campaign, a grudge match between two state politicians.
The Republican Party of North Carolina recently mailed a campaign flyer on behalf of N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. The brochure accuses challenger John Snow, D-Murphy — a former state senator who was defeated by Davis two years ago and is now running again — of standing with President Barack Obama for taxpayer funding of abortion clinics.
“Jim Davis said that money would be better spent at our local health departments, for real health programs that save lives,” the brochure reads. “But John Snow wants to spend it at abortion clinics, where they take lives.”
For the record, federal law makes it illegal for any federal tax dollars to go toward abortions, yet the claim is frequently proferred by conservative candidates.
The interesting aspect of the flyer authorized by Davis is not the exaggerated nature of its assertions or political attacks, which many Americans have come to expect from their elected politicians, but rather a finer detail that casts a questionable light on the entire criticism: Snow, although a Democrat, is essentially a pro-life candidate.
“My position on abortion,” Snow said in response to the advertisement by Davis, “is that I oppose abortions except for cases of rape, incest and where the life of the mother is threatened.”
Ironically, Davis has the same set of convictions about abortion carried by his Democratic challenger.
But, Snow said funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood and issues like abortion are being used to distract from larger economic issues the Republicans were afraid to tackle.
“These wedge issue like abortion are issues Republicans use to excite their base and get them out to vote,” Snow said.
When it comes to politics in Western North Carolina, most Democrats already take a conservative stance on social issues when compared to their national counterparts.
Of the Democratic candidates running for three statewide offices in the seven western counties only one, Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, is openly pro-choice.
N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, like Snow, believes abortion should only be permissible in the case of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy. Rapp also believes abortions are acceptable in certain situations involving minors.