A Year After the Fall of Roe: How North Carolina Women Lost Abortion Rights

Abortion rights protesters are removed from the General Assembly on May 16, 2023 after shouting "shame, shame," when legislators overrode Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the 12-week abortion ban. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

By Michael McElroy

June 23, 2023

Republican legislatures across the U.S. enacted abortion bans soon after the Supreme Court’s struck down Roe v. Wade, but North Carolina’s attack on abortion rights came in the last few months.

It’s been a year since the U.S. Supreme Court upended national abortion rights and left in their place a chaotic patchwork where some states bolster protections and others take them away. 

Saturday is the first anniversary of the Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and Vice President Kamala Harris will be in Charlotte to speak about the harm it’s caused across the country.

Starting on the day of the ruling, Republican-controlled legislatures across the country began working on severe abortion bans. 

The harm has been immense and not at all surprising, doctors and reproductive freedom advocates say. 

Women suffering through ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, fetal anomalies, and other complications have found it difficult to get the care they need in states with restrictive abortion policies, several recent studies show. And a study released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that in states with new gestational limits on abortion, 60% of physicians say their ability to decide what constitutes necessary care has been hindered.

North Carolina’s legislature took a slower path, passing a 12-week abortion ban this spring that adds barriers that make it likely that even those following all the necessary steps would be unable to get an appointment in time.

Though the ban includes exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, the language is still vague enough—state medical professional say—that doctors could hesitate to act, even in emergencies. 

The bill also adds new licensing requirements for many abortion providers that could shut down all six existing Planned Parenthood clinics in the state. There are only 14 abortion clinics operating in North Carolina, meaning nearly half of them could be forced to close if Planned Parenthood is barred from operating here. The ban goes into effect on July 1. 

Here is a timeline of the fight for abortion rights in North Carolina over the last year and a look at our full coverage of the issue.

June, 2022: The Ruling and the Buildup

In the days before the June 24 ruling was announced last year, thousands of people joined a reproductive freedom rally in Raleigh. Many marchers remembered the fight before the Roe decision in 1973 and said they were angry they had to march all over again. 

In the days after the Dobbs decision on June 24, the focus in North Carolina moved to the 2022 midterm elections, where, if Republicans won a supermajority in the General Assembly, they could override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of any new abortion restrictions. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

April 7, 2023: The Tricia Cotham Effect

Well, not exactly. Voters did block a supermajority, by one seat in the state House. But in April, Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County—who won as a Democrat and campaigned on promises to uphold abortion rights in N.C.—abruptly switched parties, giving Republicans full override power. Republicans introduced the 12-week abortion ban just a few weeks later. Cotham voted for it.

Her constituents said she betrayed them and called on her to resign. She did not. 

Feb. 24-April 26: Warnings and Dire Predictions

Before North Carolina’s 12-week ban was introduced, doctors tried to tell legislators what would happen:

  • More than 1,400 of North Carolina’s top medical professionals delivered a stark warning for state lawmakers in February, decrying abortion bans as dangerous for women, children, and the health care system.
  • Republican leaders hinted in the weeks before the bill was introduced that a 12-week ban was likely. During this time, we spoke to Dr. Katherine Farris, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and an abortion provider in Charlotte, to walk us through the potential consequences. All bans are dangerous, she told us, but “the people who are 11 weeks and six days along are not more deserving of this healthcare than people who are 12 weeks and one day.”

May 4-6, 2023: The 12-week ban passes the state legislature.

The bill was introduced 48 hours before it got a vote with limited debate and public comment. In the short time allowed, Democratic lawmakers told their own stories and denounced the bill. It passed both the Senate and House on party lines. 

May 12, 2023: The details of the ban are worse than they seem, doctors say

In interviews with Cardinal & Pine, several doctors who reviewed the law said it would increase maternal death rates, further strain the state’s health care system and cause extensive damage in ways that had yet to get much attention.

May 13-May 16, 2023: Cooper vetoes the bill, but the GOP overrides it

Cooper vetoed the ban, as promised, on May 13, but the House and Senate voted on party lines to override Gov. Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 20 and pass it into law on May 16. 

“North Carolinians now understand that Republicans are unified in their assault on women’s reproductive freedom and we are energized to fight back,” Cooper said in a statement after the override vote.

June 16, 2023: Doctors file a lawsuit challenging the 12-week ban.

A group of North Carolina medical professionals filed a lawsuit this month challenging key provisions of the state’s 12-week abortion ban.

The suit focuses on the vague provisions that make it unclear when exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother would actually be applied.

The suit, brought by Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Dr. Beverly Gray, a North Carolina OB/GYN, asks the court to address the ban’s “tangled web of medically unnecessary, inconsistent, and dangerous restrictions on care.”

On Thursday, Senate Republicans introduced a bill with little warning that would clarify a provision in Senate Bill 20 that was a major focus of the lawsuit.

The original language raised questions that medication abortion would be banned at 10 weeks. 

The “technical adjustment” scheduled for a vote this week, just a few days before the law is set to go into effect, would make it clear that the ban begins at 12 weeks for all abortion methods, including medication abortion.

Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat running for governor in 2024, announced on Thursday that because the law was unconstitutional, he would not defend it in the lawsuit.

Republican leaders filed a motion in district court asking to be added to the lawsuit so that they could defend it themselves. The first hearing in the case will be on Wednesday, June 28.

July 1, 2023: The 12-week ban goes into effect, barring a court ruling.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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