Republicans in North Carolina are playing with a legislator’s life over a controversial anti-abortion measure.
The North Carolina bill — which closely resembles the national “born-alive” bill introduced by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in January — would introduce criminal penalties against doctors who don’t care for babies that survive abortions.
Democrats in the state legislature have been showing up every day in case Republicans put the measure to a vote, so that they’ll have the numbers to sustain a veto. One of the state representatives making daily appearances is Democratic state Rep. Sydney Batch of Wake County. She has breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in early May. Instead of taking three weeks off to recover, she’s been making her way to the statehouse every day to be present to vote.
“I wish it wouldn’t have to be the case,” Batch told The Intercept. “I did not want this to be a story locally or nationally. I had no idea that it would turn into what it is.”
North Carolina Republicans passed the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act through the House and Senate in April, and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it on April 18. The Senate overrode the veto on April 30, and the House placed it back on the calendar soon after to try to do the same. But they’ve been playing a cat-and-mouse game: House Republicans have placed the measure on the legislative calendar and withdrawn it at least 10 times in the month of May, removing it when enough Democrats show up and they realize they don’t have enough votes to push it through.
Batch described the maneuver by Republicans as political gamesmanship and took issue with their characterization of the bill as a good-faith effort to protect children. “If it really was about women’s health, and if it really was about trying to make sure voters could be heard on this issue, then we wouldn’t be in the situation that we are now,” she said. “It really ultimately just saddens me. And I’m willing to suffer through the physical and temporary pain in order to make sure that women have that right in the future and that it’s not just because I couldn’t get in that day to vote.”
“I’m willing to suffer through the physical and temporary pain in order to make sure that women have that right in the future.”
Batch pointed out the irony in the fact that she’s sacrificing her own health in order to keep the legislature from passing a measure that would further erode the quality of women’s health care in her state. “We could have just held off for two weeks,” Batch said. “I wasn’t even asking for more than two weeks, honestly. I didn’t actually ask for any time,” she explained. “I could have recovered and come back.”
In response to questions from The Intercept, a spokesperson for Republican North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore said, “The scheduling procedure of the Born Alive bill’s veto override on the calendar is the same scheduling procedure the North Carolina House has used for veto overrides in all three of Speaker Moore’s terms and in terms before his — it’s not unique to this issue or legislative session.”
In November, Democrats were able to break the supermajority Republicans had held in both of North Carolina’s legislative chambers since 2011, meaning that Republicans no longer have the three-fifths majority they need to override a veto by Cooper.
The latest calendar date for the veto override vote is Wednesday — so Batch will once again make her way to the legislature to ensure that she’s there in case the vote takes place. She said, “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if for some reason we didn’t sustain the governor’s veto by one vote, and it was simply because I wasn’t able to get in.”
The “born-alive” bill is part of a national effort to curtail women’s rights to certain types of reproductive care, Batch said. After Alabama passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, similar legislation quickly popped up in states across the country. At least seven other states have already passed similar laws this year.
What’s happening in North Carolina, Batch explained, is a response to a nationwide push by the Republican Party to introduce state-level legislation to walk back abortion rights and advance a divisive political narrative that doesn’t necessarily reflect voter preferences. Four out of five Alabamians oppose the latest law, and a 2018 poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showed that 71 percent of voters support Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion access.
“I think it’s an extremely well-coordinated effort by some groups, whoever they are, through the Republican Houses and members, using Republicans as conduits in order to get this legislation passed,” Batch said. “We’ve seen it rolled out nationally in almost every other state as a narrative that I think is trying to just cause and sow division among parties and individuals. Rather than really deal with the fact that if we actually worked on legislation to help women, to help families, then we could work together and change lots of people’s lives,” she said.
The North Carolina legislature is already known for advancing extremely conservative measures, including the notorious 2016 “bathroom bill” that would have forced transgender people to use the bathroom for the gender they were assigned at birth. A federal court in 2016 struck down a discriminatory North Carolina voter ID law that judges said “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Legislators admitted in court filings that parts of their proposed changes were intended to partially suppress the black vote. Earlier this year, Republicans in the legislature introduced a bill — opposed by the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association — that would force sheriffs to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, after five newly elected sheriffs announced that they would be changing the way their offices work with federal immigration officers.
As for the state’s “born-alive” measure, North Carolina already has legislation outlining doctors’ responsibilities and duties. And there are already laws in North Carolina that criminalize neglecting or killing children. “Even on the floor debate the day we voted on it in the House, one of the Republican representatives said in her speech that there was a doctor serving time for doing this — which means that there are laws currently in place to actually address this issue,” said Batch.
There’s only been one such recent case where a doctor did not provide lifesaving medical care to an infant that survived an abortion. As the Republican representative mentioned, that doctor is already in jail.
“No one likes infanticide, no one wants babies to die. But this is not a bill that addresses that issue.”
Republicans aren’t pushing the bill in good faith, Batch explained. “No one likes infanticide, no one wants babies to die,” she said. “No one wants medical treatment to be able to be withheld from them. But this is not a bill that addresses that issue.”
The spokesperson for Moore, the Republican state House speaker, said, “The Born Alive bill creates a unique duty of care for abortion survivors not currently in state law.”
Batch said the bill “also disregards a lot of women who end up having children with congenital defects, and women who may be in a position in which they have to give birth to a stillborn or to a baby who will suffer and die shortly after birth.” She continued, “This bill is going to prevent some women from being able to talk to their doctors about exactly what can happen.”
Batch said her colleagues in the legislature have been supportive and that one of her fellow Republican representatives even offered not to vote so she wouldn’t have to come in and forgo cancer treatment. But she hasn’t heard from Moore, the House speaker, she said.
“There are more important things in North Carolina that we need to be addressing, and in the United States, than hot-button topics that are not as divisive as polls indicate,” she said. “If we’re at 70 percent margins that Roe v. Wade should be left alone, then why don’t we talk about the other issues? Like the fact that there are people out here that don’t have health insurance or access to medical treatment, or can’t take time off when they do get sick because they’ll lose their jobs?” Batch introduced her own family leave bill this session that would address some of those very issues. “It’ll never see the light of day,” she said. “Ever.”
“If we really care about people, and if we care about taking care of one another, and children, as has been the thing that they continue to beat on the other side of the aisle — Republicans — then why don’t we care about the children that are here?” she asked. “And if we start talking about things like that, then perhaps we wouldn’t need to talk about whether or not children in these particular situations are going to be hurt by doctors.”
Correction: June 5, 2019, 5:40 p.m.
An earlier version of this story cited a 2018 ABC News and Wall Street Journal public opinion poll on Roe v. Wade. It has been corrected to reflect that the poll was conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.