Last week, while most of the country was celebrating the Fourth of July holiday, lawmakers in North Carolina took a bill designed to combat so-called “Sharia law” and, without any notice or warning, transformed it into a massive anti-abortion omnibus bill – one that included every single abortion restriction introduced in the 2013 legislative session. The proposals include restricting insurance coverage for abortion services, excessive restrictions on medication abortions and a host of unnecessary regulations on the state’s clinics that would likely force them to close. The bill, known as HB 695, sailed through the chamber’s full vote less than 24 hours after it was first proposed – but it sparked a wave of criticism and protest, even among conservatives. Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who pledged as a candidate to leave the state’s abortion laws alone, threatened to break with his party and veto the legislation unless it went through “significant” changes. But rather than back down, lawmakers doubled down and, with even less notice and less opportunity for the public to respond, attached a slightly modified version of the restrictions to a motorcycle safety bill. Because that’s how democracy works.
North Carolina is just the latest state where conservative lawmakers are making a go-for-broke run on abortion rights. It’s a strategy that depends on keeping the public in the dark. So far in 2013, 17 states have passed a total of 43 abortion restrictions. Like the ones in North Carolina, many of these restrictions passed under political cover of darkness. In Ohio, anti-choice lawmakers attached to their two-year budget provisions that will defund Planned Parenthood clinics, strip funding from rape crisis centers that provide any information about abortion, reallocate funding to religiously affiliated “crisis pregnancy centers” and, most disturbingly, mandate that doctors provide women seeking abortions information about the presence of a “fetal heartbeat” prior to performing the procedure. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker made good use of the 4th of July holiday to quietly sign a host of new abortion restrictions in his state before being stopped, again, by a federal court. And let’s not forget Texas, where lawmakers are still trying to ram through abortion restrictions in yet another special session after state senator Wendy Davis and thousands of supporters stopped the last one. The trend is disturbing. As Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, has argued, the greater the restriction, the more willing conservative lawmakers are to cheat to win.
But conservatives may want to re-think that strategy. In North Carolina, like Texas, conservatives’ play at restricting abortion access has helped mobilize the state’s progressive and Democratic base. Every Monday since April, thousands of North Carolinians have gathered at the State Capitol in Raleigh to protest the direction in which the Republican majority is taking the state. What started out as a few dozen protesters has now ballooned, with over 700 North Carolinians arrested in the last 10 weeks for engaging in acts of civil disobedience at these “Moral Monday” demonstrations. Their issues are wide-ranging, with protesters challenging lawmakers on everything from voting rights to fracking to school vouchers and racial equality. But it wasn’t until lawmakers targeted abortion rights that that the protests really took off. Last Monday, in response to the anti-abortion omnibus law, approximately 2,000 protesters flooded the Capitol. At least 64 protesters were arrested in the name of protecting access to abortion. It’s worth noting that, like the events in Texas, this is all happening in a red state – a powerful counter-example to those who argue that abortion rights are not a winnable political issue across the country.
Lawmakers in North Carolina have until the end of the current session, which could be as early as next week, to pass these new restrictions. If they can’t get them passed, then they will have to wait until at least January to try again. Meanwhile, it’s not clear whether Gov. McCrory intends to follow through with his veto threat – or whether right-wing lawmakers have the votes to override it if he does. Either way, a crucial question remains to be answered: Just how far are conservatives willing to go in their attack on abortion rights, and can the moderates in the party stop them?