By HANNAH SCHOENBAUM and GARY D. ROBERTSON
In front of an exuberant crowd, North Carolina’s Democratic governor vetoed legislation Saturday that would have banned nearly all abortions in his state after 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Abortion-rights activists and voters watched on a plaza in the capital of Raleigh as Gov. Roy Cooper affixed his veto stamp to the bill in an unconventionally public display. The veto launches a major test for leaders of the GOP-controlled General Assembly to attempt an override vote after they recently gained veto-proof majorities in both chambers. The bill was the Republican response to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
"We’re going to have to kick it into an even higher gear when that veto stamp comes down,” Cooper told the crowd. “If just one Republican in either the House or the Senate keeps a campaign promise to protect women’s reproductive health, we can stop this ban.”
Andrea Long, a 42-year-old mother of three from Cary, said she was honored be part of the “electric” crowd on what she called a “historic day for freedom” in North Carolina.
“I couldn’t stop crying tears of joy seeing the governor hold up the veto stamp, but I know it’s an uphill battle to keep this momentum going,” Long said. In a statement provided late Saturday through Cooper’s office, State Capitol Police Deputy Chief Terry Green said the crowd estimate was over 2,000 people.
Cooper, a strong abortion-rights supporter, had until Sunday night to act on the measure that tightens current state law, which bans most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The legislation passed along party lines last week in the House and Senate. Override voting could begin next week.
Cooper spent this week on the road talking about the bill’s lesser-known details and urging residents to apply pressure upon key Republican lawmakers who were hesitant about further restrictions during their campaigns for office last year.
Republicans have pitched the measure as a middle-ground change to state abortion laws developed after months of private negotiations between House and Senate GOP members. It adds exceptions to the 12-week ban, extending the limit through 20 weeks for rape and incest and through 24 weeks for “life-limiting” fetal anomalies.
Senate leader Phil Berger accused Cooper on Saturday of “feeding the public lies” and “bullying” members of his party to block the legislation. “I look forward to promptly overriding his veto,” he said in a statement.
Cooper has said repeatedly the details contained in the 47-page bill show that the measure isn’t a reasonable compromise and would instead greatly erode reproductive rights. He cites new obstacles for women to obtain abortions — such as requiring multiple in-person visits, additional paperwork to prove a patient has given their informed consent to an abortion and increased regulation of clinics providing the procedure.
Cooper and allies have said those changes in practice will shut down clinics that cannot afford major upgrades mandated by new licensing standards and make it nearly impossible for women who live in rural areas or work long hours to access abortion services.
Compared to recent actions by Republican-controlled legislatures elsewhere, the broad prohibition after 12 weeks can be viewed as less onerous to those in other states where the procedure has been banned almost completely. But abortion-rights activists have argued that it’s more restrictive than meets the eye and will have far-reaching consequences. Since Roe was overturned, many patients traveling from more restrictive states have become dependent on North Carolina as a locale for abortions later in pregnancy.
Republicans call the legislation pro-family and pro-child, pointing to at least $160 million in spending contained within for maternal health services, foster and adoption care, contraceptive access and paid leave for teachers and state employees after the birth of a child.
Cooper has called out four GOP legislators — three House members and one senator — whom he said told voters last year that they would protect abortion access. Abortion-rights activists passed out fliers in the crowd Saturday with their names and office phone numbers. Anti-abortion groups criticized Cooper's cross-state campaign to sway one or more Republicans.
“The way he's been showing up in their districts and harassing their constituents, it's disgusting,” said Wes Bryant, one of about 60 anti-abortion protesters gathered across the street from Cooper's rally for a prayer event.
One of the House members Cooper singled out is Rep. Tricia Cotham, of Mecklenburg County, who voted for the bill mere weeks after she switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP. The move gave Republicans a veto-proof supermajority if all of their legislators are present and voting.
Cotham has spoken out for abortion rights in the past and even earlier this year co-sponsored a bill to codify abortion protections into state law. Rep. Ted Davis of Wilmington — another targeted legislator — was the only Republican absent from last week’s initial House vote. The Senate margin already became veto-proof after GOP gains last November.
Davis said last fall that he supported “what the law is in North Carolina right now,” which was a 20-week limit. Davis has declined to comment on the bill, but House Speaker Tim Moore said recently that Davis is a “yes” vote for an override.
Like Berger, Moore accused Cooper of spreading misinformation about the bill “to frighten voters” and predicted a swift override in his chamber.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.