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North Carolina governor makes last-minute plea to block new abortion limits

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, left, and Planned Parenthood South Atlantic CEO Jenny Black speak with doctors at a forum about new abortion restrictions, Wednesday, May 10, 2023, at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, N.C. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's Democratic governor rallied residents and local doctors Wednesday in Wilmington as part of a last-minute bid to persuade at least one Republican lawmaker to sustain his expected veto of a bill banning most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The visit marks the second day of Gov. Roy Cooper's cross-state campaign to urge the constituents of four GOP state legislators to demand they uphold abortion access after expressing hesitance about further restrictions during their election campaigns last year.

Cooper singled out Reps. Tricia Cotham and John Bradford of Mecklenburg County and Rep. Ted Davis and Sen. Michael Lee of New Hanover County after Republicans fast-tracked legislation last week to impose more stringent limits beyond the current 20 weeks. He plans to veto the bill Saturday at a rally in Raleigh, but party-line votes for passage and assurances from legislative leaders indicate it will likely be overridden.

Flanked by health care providers Wednesday in the Cape Fear region — Davis and Lee’s home turf — Cooper insisted it's not too late for voters to change their lawmakers' minds.

“All we need is one — one person of conscience,” he said. “One person who knows that this is wrong and is not afraid to stand up to party leadership.”

Cooper's shoe-leather advocacy represents state Democrats' last defense against a new wave of conservative policies made possible by Cotham's recent party switch from Democrat to Republican. Her move gave the GOP veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers, essentially nullifying the governor's veto power unless he can pull in one or more Republicans to block the bill from becoming law.

Some Democrats, like longtime political consultant Gary Pearce, say Cooper's last-minute barnstorming demonstrates a newfound “desperation" in light of Republicans' recent seat gains. But conservative critics like Caitlin Connors, southern regional director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, view his visits as “attempts to bully lawmakers."

Lee, who insists he's made clear his unwavering views on abortion since the campaign season, said in a tweet Wednesday that he opposes banning the procedure before 12 weeks but thinks most abortions later in pregnancy are “abhorrent and should be restricted.” The Wilmington-area Republican said in a candidate forum last fall that he supports a woman's right to choose in the first trimester.

“I will not let the governor lie to the people of my district and this state and try to bully me out of legislation I campaigned on supporting,” Lee had said Friday in a tweet.

Abortion providers say the headline-grabbing 12-week cutoff distracts from dozens more provisions packed into the 47-page bill that make it much more restrictive than meets the eye. They pointed to new hurdles requiring women to make an in-person visit to a medical professional at least 72 hours before the procedure. Under current law, the three-day waiting period can be initiated over the phone.

That waiting period, Cooper said, is longer than the time it took Republicans to file, debate and pass the bill.

Starting July 1, the bill would also place limits on new exceptions, capping abortions at 20 weeks in cases of rape or incest and 24 weeks for “life-limiting” fetal anomalies, including certain physical or genetic disorders that can be diagnosed prenatally. An existing exception for when the life of the pregnant woman is in danger would remain.

New facility requirements would also require a “massive investment” for most providers to continue operating clinics in the state, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic CEO Jenny Black told reporters Wednesday. Some of the organization's abortion centers, which Black said have been havens for North Carolinians and patients traveling from more restrictive states, will never meet the new standards, she said.

Davis, Lee's counterpart in the state House and the lone Republican absent from the chamber when lawmakers approved the bill last week, had previously stated his support for the existing 20-week limit. Asked by email Wednesday about Cooper’s visit to Wilmington and his own views on the abortion bill, Davis said he had no comment at this time.

While Pearce, the state Democratic consultant, said it’s “a longshot” that Cooper’s last-minute plea will sway a Republican, he called the approach “a smart strategy” that could pay dividends in future elections.

“It’s not impossible,” Pearce said of Cooper pulling in a Republican. “But then if they go ahead and override his veto and they put this in effect, then Democrats are going to run hard on it next year, and I think it’s going to be a winning issue for them.”

Constituents like Marla Barthen, a Wilmington nurse and film industry medic, are among those demanding accountability.

“Senator Lee talked about a 12-week ban, but then all these other stipulations that were loaded on top of that — it's overreach,” she said. “Then Ted Davis made promises that he wasn't going to make any changes ... and so women inside our community have just been misled and lied to.”


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.

Hannah Schoenbaum, The Associated Press

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