Abortion rights advocates have increased their efforts in recent weeks to highlight just how perilous abortion access is in North Carolina.
More than a thousand of North Carolina’s top medical professionals delivered a stark warning for state lawmakers this week: Any legislator voting to further restrict access to abortion care here would also ensure more mothers die during childbirth, shove the state’s healthcare system into chaos, and, in future pregnancy-related emergencies, force doctors to check with lawyers before giving life-saving treatment.
That, the group said, is what abortion bans do.
The message was delivered in a press conference outside the General Assembly on Wednesday and in an open letter to lawmakers signed by more than 1,000 health officials across the state, organizers said.
“As North Carolina health care professionals deeply committed to patients’ safety and well-being, we adamantly oppose any new abortion restrictions,” the letter states.
Health officials and advocates for reproductive freedom have increased their efforts in recent weeks to highlight just how perilous abortion access is in North Carolina, a state that had emerged as a relative oasis in the South last summer after the fall of Roe v Wade. North Carolina currently restricts abortions after 20 weeks, but Republicans in the state legislature have left little doubt that they want to enact new restrictions or even an outright ban. Though no bill has been introduced, it could come at any time, advocates warn.
“Since Roe v. Wade was overturned last June, our colleagues in neighboring states with abortion bans have been dealing with chaos and confusion,” Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine physician with UNC Health, said at the news conference. “So learning that some politicians in our state legislature want to create the same dangerous situation is alarming to those of us actually practicing direct patient care,” she added.
“Doctors do not want these laws.”
An Imminent Danger
Though it may seem like just another bout in the state’s long fight over abortion rights, this time, advocates say, really is different.
The US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe means the court system is no longer a back-stop to any new legislation, and, after the 2022 elections, Republicans are only a couple of Democratic defections or missed votes away from being able to override any inevitable veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Amid this urgency, a broad coalition of rights organizations and advocates held a “Reproductive Freedom Advocacy Day” at the legislature on Tuesday, the day before the physicians’ event, the first of many events planned in the coming weeks, organizers said.
More than 150 advocates spent the day meeting legislators in both chambers and parties to make their case. Molly Rivera, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Atlantic, said in an interview on Tuesday: “We really feel it’s important to demonstrate that the majority of North Carolinians, regardless of how they personally feel about abortion, they don’t want to see another abortion ban in this state.”
Both Rivera and the doctors group said it was important to educate legislators who may be considering more restrictions and to inform the public that these things are at stake right now.
Many people, she pointed out, don’t even know that there is a legislative session underway and that an abortion ban could be on the agenda.
While this legislative session might pose the most direct threat, Rivera said, “we are expecting a long, grueling fight ahead.”
‘A Chilling Effect’
Dr. Alison Stuebe, a maternal fetal medicine physician who cares for high-risk pregnancies, said at the news conference that bans created a “chilling effect” that threatened patients’ lives.
“When we ban abortion at any point, we cause fear for clinicians that take us away from our fiduciary responsibility to do what is best for the patient in front of us. And we have to navigate a call to legal and a discussion about ‘am I doing the right thing for the patient and if I do the right thing for the patient am I going to lose my medical license.”
Amid the confusion created by the rush for more restrictions, doctors are often unclear in real time about what they can and can’t administer.
That has repercussions far beyond abortions, doctors said.
The medical response and medications administered during many severe complications in a wanted pregnancy are the same as those used in medical abortions. That means that someone who just lost their baby in a miscarriage, a common and brutal experience, may not get the treatment they need because doctors are worried about legal consequences.
“There is no exception that can be written into legislation that covers all of the gray areas that come up in this work,” Stuebe said. “There is no way to safely implement a ban on abortion at any gestational age without harming women and the people who love them.”
This is true even with North Carolina’s current 20-week ban. Stuebe shared a story about a patient who had a highly desired pregnancy last fall but whose blood pressure rose suddenly after 20 weeks. An ultrasound showed that her fetus was severely growth-restricted, and would not result in a healthy child.
“When I met the patient at the hospital,” Stuebe said, “I said, ‘Ma’am I’m really sorry: Before the 20-week ban I could offer you standard of care, which is to terminate this pregnancy, but right now you’re not sick enough.”
Stuebe checked the patient’s labs every six hours from home over a weekend, she said, to see if the numbers went up enough so that she could say it was too risky for the patient to stay pregnant without losing her medical license.
It took two days for the patient to get sick enough to assuage the legal requirements, she said,
“Please, please, let me take care of my patients and keep them safe, and don’t have the government reaching into exam rooms and telling me how to practice medicine,” Stuebe said.