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NC House votes to bar abortions based on race, Down syndrome

May 6, 2021 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina abortion providers would be barred from performing the procedure if a woman’s decision centered on the unborn child’s race or a Down syndrome diagnosis, under legislation approved Thursday by the House.

The measure, which passed after nearly an hour of impassioned debate, marked the latest flashpoint for state Republicans trying to further restrict abortion. GOP lawmakers said the measure is designed to prevent discrimination. The legislature approved a ban on sex-selection abortions in 2013.

“I understand abortion is a very heated and partisan topic. This bill is very narrowly tailored,” Rep. John Bradford, a Mecklenburg County Republican and bill sponsor whose legislative interns have included those with Down syndrome.

“The idea of terminating the birth of the baby that never had a chance just because it has Down syndrome … to me just is heartbreaking, because these individuals have so much to give our society,” Bradford told colleagues.

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Abortion rights groups and their allies on the House floor agreed that the measure is just another method by which state government is weaponized to meddle in the deeply personal decisions of a woman, in consultation with her doctor.

“Forcing someone to carry a pregnancy to term against their will does nothing to address discrimination or improve the lives of people living with Down syndrome,” Susanna Birdsong with Planned Parenthood South Atlantic said in a news release after the 67-42 vote.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

The bill likely would receive the veto stamp of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, an abortion-rights supporter, should it reach his desk.

Approximately one in every 700 babies in the United States — or about 6,000 a year — is born with the condition, which results from a chromosomal irregularity, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.

Six Democrats joined the Republicans in voting for measure. Rep. Linda Cooper-Suggs, a Wilson County Democrat who voted no, decried what she saw as a racial motive behind the measure.

“This bill is built on the premise that women of color, particularly black women, seek abortions on the basis of the presumed race of the fetus. This is a false, oppressive narrative that women of color cannot be trusted to make our own decisions regarding reproductive rights,” Cooper-Suggs said. “It also forces people of color to justify their decision to have an abortion to their doctor.”

Another bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Pat McElraft of Carteret County, spoke as her voice quivered at the close of the debate, saying her goal was to protect children with Down syndrome: “There is no racism in my heart.”

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A handful of states have passed similar laws regarding Down syndrome diagnoses and have been caught up in legal battles. A federal appeals court ruled in November that Tennessee could begin outlawing abortions because of a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

The House vote came the same day that Senate Republicans began a new effort to advance legislation successfully vetoed two years ago by Cooper that would create a new crime against doctors and nurses who fail to care for an infant delivered during an unsuccessful abortion.

The “born alive” measure, which would subject health care providers to misdemeanors and fines of up to $250,000, is needed to ensure these newborns received the same level of treatment as any other child who is delivered, said bill sponsor Sen. Joyce Krawiec of Forsyth County.

“This bill changes nothing -- nothing -- accept how an infant born alive is treated,” Krawiec told the Senate Health Care Committee, which recommended the measure on a voice vote. “It is a living, breathing human being apart from its mother’s body.”

Bill opponents said it would attempt to intimidate women and physicians and stigmatize reproductive health services. Birdsong read Cooper’s own 2019 veto message at the hearing, in which the governor wrote state laws already protect newborns and the bill was “an unnecessary interference between doctors and their patients.” Krawiec’s current bill is slightly different in that health care providers would have faced a felony in the 2019 legislation.