Small Bill, Big Consequences: Duke Student Sarah Van Name takes on SB 308

[Guest Writer Sarah Van Name’s entry is cross-posted with permission from DevelleDish, a student-run blog at Duke University]

Friends, it’s been a bad mont­­h for abortion rights. First, Arkansas introduced the most restrictive abortion law in the States, banning all abortions at twelve weeks. Then, not to be outdone by ultra-conservative Southerners, North Dakota passed a bill outlawing abortions at weeks. That’s before most women even know they’re pregnant. These laws are egregious and unconstitutional, and they’ve been taking up a lot of news space. Enough space that a tiny, comparatively quiet bill called SB 308 has slipped under the radar in North Carolina. But it would be a mistake to let it go unnoticed.

On March 13, the North Carolina General Assembly introduced SB 308, an amendment to the Women’s Right to Know Act and one more reason to be ashamed of our state’s legislature. The amendment would add two more restrictions to a law that already does far too much to limit women’s access to abortions. First, the doctor performing the abortion would have to be physically present during the entire abortion procedure and on the premises until the patient leaves the facility. Second, that doctor would have to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the facility where the abortion was performed.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Women’s Right to Know Act, let me acquaint you with this truly horrible piece of legislation. As part of the wave of intense anti-choice bills that swept the nation in 2011, it includes a parental consent stipulation, a 24-hour waiting period, and the requirement that the doctor give a wide variety of medically irrelevant information to any woman seeking an abortion, including a list of adoption agencies and pictures of what the fetus looks like at that time in the pregnancy. (The woman is required to view this packet, amongst other material.) Someone at the clinic even has to give the woman an ultrasound and offer her the chance to hear the fetal heartbeat; she must sign a waiver if she chooses to close her eyes or decline to hear the heartbeat. Essentially, the Women’s Right to Know Act means that any woman looking for an abortion is bombarded with unnecessary information aimed at forcing her to change her mind.

In trying to convince people that laws like this are harmful, one of the problems I’ve encountered is that a lot of its provisions sound reasonable in theory. If you strip away the rhetoric of both the right and the left and actually comb through the meat of the bills – you can look at the original bill here and the amendment here – sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why, exactly, a certain stipulation is anti-choice.

Take the example of the 24-hour waiting period. A woman must come to the clinic, talk to the doctor, and then wait 24 hours before she returns to actually have the abortion. On the surface, it might seem all right: no harm in waiting a day for a procedure, and it might be good to have some extra time to consider such an important choice.

Okay. Sure. First of all, there’s the extraordinary audacity of lawmakers telling a woman she hasn’t sufficiently thought through such a decision. Are you kidding me? Give us some credit. But beyond that, there is real harm in having to wait a day, because many women don’t live near an abortion clinic. 86% of North Carolina counties have no abortion provider, and 50% of North Carolina women live in those counties. Low-income women may not be able to take time off from work, obtain childcare, or figure out transportation for the sometimes hours-long drive necessary to get to an abortion provider. And if she has trouble getting time, care, and transportation for one visit, the trouble will be multiplied if she has to go there, come home, and then repeat the next day after the waiting period is done. It’s not as simple as it seems.

Some anti-choice provisions, like the 24-hour waiting period and the ultrasound, are constructed to discourage women themselves from obtaining an abortion. Others, like the amendments in SB 308, target the abortion providers.

There is no medical reason for the doctor to need to be present for the entirety of the abortion and until the woman leaves the premises. A new study, done over six years, confirms what many people already knew: abortions are safe when practiced by nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants. The only conceivable reason for requiring the doctor to be present for so long would be to cut down on his or her time and, therefore, the number of patients he or she can see.

Abortion providers also don’t need admitting privileges to a hospital: abortions, especially in the first trimester, are incredibly safe when performed in a sterile medical environment. Complications are very rare. But requiring that doctors have admitting privileges to a local hospital is a favorite tactic of anti-choice legislators. In some cases, there might not be a hospital within thirty miles of the clinic. If there is, the hospital will often refuse to grant privileges – not because of any real medical reason, but because they don’t want the trouble. In a recent WRAL story on SB 308, a spokesperson from Planned Parenthood explained that when a similar law passed in Mississippi, “no providers were given admitting privileges…The hospitals, quite frankly, did not want protesters out in front of their hospitals interfering with their practice of medicine.”

The bill has not yet gone to a vote, but with an anti-choice, Republican House and Senate – and not a whole lot of pro-choice Democrats – it seems likely that it will pass. Governor McCrory pledged not to sign any new anti-abortion legislation; whether he’ll keep his promise remains to be seen. Even if he does refuse to sign the bill, there are sufficient numbers of anti-choice legislators to override his veto – as they did with Governor Perdue’s veto of the original Women’s Right to Know Act in 2011.

If passed, this amendment will force abortion providers in North Carolina to shut their doors. Make no mistake: it is unreasonable, unnecessary, and unacceptable. E-mail or call Governor McCrory and urge him to end SB 308 before it can begin. As of 2008 – there are no more recent numbers – we have only 31 abortion providers in North Carolina. Each of those 31 clinics represents a space for North Carolina women to make the choice to have an abortion, a choice that is guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, not to mention the basic idea that people should be able to have control over their bodies. Those 31 clinics represent real choice for women. We cannot let them close their doors. We need every single one.

Sarah Van Name, a North Carolina native, will graduate from Duke University next month with a degree in Literature. She is a staff writer for Develle Dish and a participant in the WriteHers program at Duke. This blog is cross-posted on DevelleDish.com, and written in collaboration with the WriteHers Project. She tweets @safvn. 

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