N.C. health secretary: Abortion bill needs more discussion

Jul. 09, 2013 @ 07:56 PM

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told a N.C. House committee on Tuesday that parts of a bill proposed to increase the regulation of abortion clinics in the state need more discussion before the bill is passed.

The bill was sent to the N.C. House’s Health and Human Services Committee after the N. C. Senate passed it last week. Prior to the meeting, pro-choice supporters in pink rallied outside. Other pro-choice supporters attended the meeting, sitting across from pro-life advocates dressed mostly in blue.

“I urge you to follow the governor’s advice and leadership and spend more time studying these issues,” Wos said to the committee, adding that more clarity is needed for certain sections of the proposed legislation. She pointed specifically to a section that would require physicians to be physically present during the entire abortion procedure, and for abortion facilities to meet standards similar to those for ambulatory surgical centers.

While she said disagreement with any new rules or regulations is “unrealistic” and existing regulations need to be updated, she also said that department experts believe one of the most “consequential” ways to improve health and safety for women would be dedicated resources to more frequent inspections of clinics and to review existing regulations.

Ten full-time employees in the state’s licensing division for acute and home care health care facilities are responsible for surveying hundreds of facilities including abortion clinics, dialysis centers and psychiatric hospitals, she said. She said they’re able to inspect the medical components of abortion clinics each three to five years.

“One of the biggest regulatory challenges facing our department is how infrequently we are able to conduct regular inspections of the clinic,” she said.

Drexdal Pratt, director of the state health department’s N.C. Division of Health Service Regulation, pointed to specific language in the bill that he said needs to be clarified, such as what it would mean for abortion clinics to be “similar to” ambulatory surgery centers.

Pratt said the centers are more costly to build and require additional staff. In addition, he raised concerns with a provision that would require clinics to have transfer agreements with hospitals similar to the centers’.

He said abortion clinics in the state don’t have transfer agreements, and many abortion clinic physicians don’t have hospital privileges. If the bill requires abortion providers to get transfer agreements or hospital privileges and they’re not granted, he said the bill would close all but one of the state’s 16 abortion clinics. 

Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg County, said the goal of the bill isn’t to shut down the state’s abortion clinics, but is instead aimed at making them safer. She said legislators would work to make the language clearer.

“We’re in the agreement that the goal is safety, the goal is not to shut down clinics, and we will work with you to figure out how to do that in the best way,” she said.

Rep. Bert Jones, a Republican representing Caswell and Rockingham counties, said in the meeting that Friday’s closure of a Durham abortion clinic was an instance of another clinic shut down for lack of quality control.

He said he’d hope that abortion advocates “would want any women’s clinic in this state to be held to the highest safety standards.”

Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange County, asked how many of the state’s abortion clinics have had safety or other violations. Azzie Y. Conley, section chief of the state health department’s Acute and Home Care Licensure & Certification Section, said it would be “safe to say” that all of them have had violations in the past five to 10 years, but she couldn’t say whether those were safety or quality of care issues.

 Insko spoke in response for increasing clinic inspections. She said that’s needed “if you really are interested in protecting the health and safety of the woman.”

Bill supporters and opponents from the public also spoke at the meeting. Dr. Marty McCaffrey, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, said he believes abortion providers in the state have been allowed to function with “limited oversight.”

 “Abortion advocates, in their zeal to support abortion, have advanced their cause by creating an image…that shields the public from reality…including its short and long-term medical risk,” he said.

Chapel Hill resident Sarah Carrier was in a line of bill protestors waiting outside the meeting room to get in prior to its start. She said she’s participated in other protests in Raleigh as part of the Moral Mondays movement.

“I feel very strongly that this is an issue of rights,” she said of the abortion bill. “I’m old enough that I remember when women did not have the right to choose good health care, and I’m scared to death we’re going back,” she added.

Micah Allen was with a group of pro-life supporters of the bill who traveled from Mebane to watch the meeting. He was with a group of members of Grace Reformed Baptist Church who prayed together in a Raleigh parking lot before walking to the meeting.

“We’re Christian and we believe that the Bible clearly teaches life is very precious,” Allen said. “Most abortions are just ‘I don’t want this baby,’” he added.

Prior to the meeting, bill protestors gathered for a rally, holding signs such as “Stop the War on Women,” and “Pro-Choice Christian.” Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina, Planned Parenthood Health Systems, and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Pro-Choice North Carolina organized the rally.

“We are going to take a stand against their anti-women’s health sneak attacks,” Alison Kiser, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina, said in an interview before the rally.

Durham resident Christina Pelech wore a pink dress, a cloth around her mouth, and a sign that read “This is how the NC GOP wants it,” to the rally.

She said she’s pro-choice since she believes a “woman’s body is her own business.” She said she went to the rally with a group of five or six people.

“I don’t know that we can change anything today, but now they know that we are watching them…and when it comes time to vote, we will remember their names,” she said.