Abortion rights face tectonic shift in the South

Hundreds of abortion-rights supporters rally outside the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C, on Saturday, May 13, 2023, to urge Republican legislators to sustain Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of new abortion restrictions. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)
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Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Abortion rights in the U.S. faced another tectonic shift Tuesday as lawmakers debated laws to sharply limit abortion in North and South Carolina, two of the few remaining Southern states with relatively easy access.

North Carolina joined South Carolina and Nebraska among the states that have been able to discuss restricting abortion access because the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which established a nationwide right to abortion.

The Republican-controlled legislature of North Carolina was attempting to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has vetoed legislation banning nearly all abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy. The override of his veto could hinge on a single vote.

Under another bill up for a vote Tuesday, in the South Carolina House, abortion access would be almost entirely banned after about six weeks of pregnancy. The South Carolina state Senate rejected a proposal to nearly outlaw the procedure.

Abortion is banned or severely restricted in much of the South and is banned throughout pregnancy now in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. In Georgia, it’s allowed only in the first six weeks of pregnancy.

The Carolinas, Florida and Virginia are now the main destinations in the region for those seeking legal abortion. Florida has a ban that kicks in 15 weeks into pregnancy. Under a recent law, that would tighten to six weeks – before women often know they’re pregnant – pending a court ruling. Further west, women often travel to Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico or Colorado.

Nationally, bans on abortion throughout pregnancy are in effect in 14 states.

In North Carolina, Cooper vetoed the bill being debated Tuesday over the weekend after spending last week traveling around the state trying to persuade one or more Republicans to uphold his veto. Among them is Rep. Tricia Cotham, whose recent switch from the Democratic Party to the GOP gave House Republicans the one additional vote they needed for veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

Both the North Carolina House and Senate passed the bill along party lines this month, signaling that an override could be successful. While GOP leaders in both chambers say they’re confident they have the votes, some uncertainty lingers in the House, where another key Republican called out by Cooper was absent for the original vote and has declined to comment on the bill.

Republicans have pitched the measure as a middle-ground change to state abortion law, which currently bans nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, without exceptions for rape or incest.

Cooper has said that the 12-week ban would greatly erode reproductive rights for North Carolinians, and others who have become dependent on the state for abortions later in pregnancy.

In South Carolina, the impasse dates back to a special session last fall when House lawmakers demanding a near-total ban did not meet to negotiate with their Senate counterparts pushing for a ban around six weeks.

The stalemate persisted even after the state Supreme Court in January struck down a previous law banning abortions once cardiac activity is detected.

That decision left abortion legal through 22 weeks of pregnancy. A sharp increase in abortions since then has rankled Republicans. Provisional state health department data show South Carolina reported nearly 1,000 abortions in each of the first three months this year, after totaling just over 200 in the one full month the previous ban was in effect.

The House is now weighing a Senate bill similar to the one they denied last year. The measure would ban abortion when an ultrasound detects cardiac activity, around six weeks.

South Carolina House Speaker Murrell Smith has said the chamber will not adjourn until the measure gets approval. Democrats began slowing the process Tuesday by speaking for all three allotted minutes on each of their hundreds of amendments and forcing other procedural votes.

Lawmakers in Nebraska were scheduled to take up debate on a proposal that would ban abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy. The proposal comes after lawmakers rejected a bill last month that would have banned abortion after cardiac activity is detected.

This latest proposal is tacked onto a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors. Opponents have said they plan to filibuster for the entire two hours of scheduled debate Tuesday evening. Conservatives in Nebraska’s unique single-chamber, officially nonpartisan Legislature will need 33 out of 49 votes for these proposals to advance.

A separate challenge to abortion access will be considered Wednesday, when a federal appeals court hears arguments on whether the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the widely used abortion drug mifepristone should be overturned. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will review a ruling last month by a federal judge in Texas who ordered a hold on approval of mifepristone, a decision that overruled two decades of scientific approval of the drug. That ruling was stayed while the appeal is pending.

The three judges who will hear the case each have a history of supporting restrictions on abortion. A ruling is not expected immediately.