life after roe

The Last Stand Against North Carolina’s 12-Week Ban

Photo: Erin Siegal McIntyre/Reuters

On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate gallery at the North Carolina General Assembly was packed, forcing demonstrators for and against abortion rights to stand almost shoulder to shoulder in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. They were waiting to see if lawmakers would override Governor Roy Cooper’s veto on Senate Bill 20, a bill that bans abortion at 12 weeks’ gestation and will decimate access for the entire South. Dr. Abby Schultz, a full-spectrum OB/GYN, stood in her white coat amid a cluster of abortion opponents. Schultz understands what is at stake: Patients from out of state come to her office increasingly sick and desperate. “They come from Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, Texas. We’ve had people drive for 18 hours straight to get to us,” she told me. “I’ve seen 12-year-olds who have had to have their parents drive them through the night and then be turned away, because they are over our current 20-week gestational ban.”

Abortion rights supporters hoped that by rallying at the General Assembly as a last-ditch effort, they could sway at least one Republican vote to sustain Cooper’s veto. Anti-abortion protesters had also filled the outside of the gallery hours before the Senate began its debate; some GOP lawmakers did the rounds among them to shake hands. They held signs reading “Vote Pro-Life,” handed out by Return America, an anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ organization. Many wore a sticker reading “Overturn the Veto,” including a newborn who slept peacefully in her mother’s arms despite the noise.

“They don’t know the stories of our patients,” Schultz said as some of the abortion opponents eavesdropped curiously. “I want them to think about the teenagers who think they are at 11 weeks but turn out to be 13 weeks and will have to be turned away. Think about the patients who have a medical problem, like end-stage renal disease — that doesn’t count in our current guidelines for maternal indications. They will be on dialysis and need a transplant because of a pregnancy.”

“I just think that if it were their sister, their mother, their daughter, their wife, and they were actually in that situation, they would realize how dangerous these laws are,” she added.

In the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, North Carolina — where abortion is legal at 20 weeks — became a refuge for patients seeking care. The state, surrounded by neighbors that ban nearly all abortions, experienced one of the largest increases in the procedure across the nation post-Dobbs. But that safe-haven status was doomed as soon as Republicans clinched a vetoproof supermajority in both chambers last month, when Representative Tricia Cotham — a longtime Democrat who passionately decried abortion restrictions after sharing the story of her own termination several years ago, and who ran for office last fall on codifying Roe suddenly switched parties. SB20 was introduced a month later.

The ban limits abortions after 12 weeks in addition to a slew of restrictions that will make it much harder for patients to access abortion care. It outlaws the mailing of abortion pills, requires they be administered in person by a physician, and limits their use up to ten weeks of pregnancy. Patients are required to visit their health provider in person 72 hours before their medication or surgical abortion, as well as do a later in-person follow-up visit — a cruel change from the telehealth option currently available, and a steep ask for those coming from out of state. And though Republicans have touted the inclusion of exceptions for cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities, and danger to the pregnant person’s life, there’s overwhelming evidence that these exceptions are almost never granted. The measure also requires an overhaul of abortion-clinic regulations, which threatens to shut down providers across the state.

Following an hour of debate, the GOP-controlled Senate comfortably overrode Cooper’s veto with a party-line vote. Abortion opponents celebrated, but their cheers were drowned out by pro-choice protesters chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” The crowd’s anger masked heartbreak: One of three doctors standing in line to enter the House gallery for the start of its session shook her head as tears ran down her face.

“I feel despair and rage,” Lisa Levenstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro who specializes in feminist politics and women’s history, told me. “They are presenting this bill as a moderate bill, a kind of middle-of -the-road piece of legislation, when in fact it is extremely restrictive and going to make it extremely challenging for people to get the abortion care that they need.”

Republican lawmakers have insisted SB20 represents the voters’ will, despite that about 62 percent of North Carolinians believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Perhaps that’s why the measure was negotiated in secret over several months, only a single public hearing was held, and the ban was rammed through the legislature within a handful of days earlier this month.

Some abortion rights supporters held onto the slim hope that one single House Republican would do the right thing: If they voted “no” on overriding the veto, or failed to show up to the floor, abortion access would be preserved in the state. Levenstein shook her head dejectedly when asked if she felt that way, too. “We’ve been calling, we’ve been emailing, we’ve been out on the streets protesting,” she said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to try to stop this, but it’s not looking good.”

The House resumed its session at 7 p.m., and after the gallery reached capacity, people on either side of the issue stayed put outside while lawmakers had an emotional debate. They held up competing “Bans Off Our Bodies” and “Vote Pro-Life” signs. A young woman stood by the windows of the gallery as the sun set and held a sign that read “I Had an Ectopic Pregnancy. Abortion Saved My Life.” The number of abortion opponents in the building had dwindled over time, and now it felt as if the split in the crowd was even.

Wearing rainbow vests, two clinic escorts named Sharon and Amanda said they had shown up to the General Assembly for those who couldn’t make it to downtown Raleigh on a weekday afternoon. “North Carolina has spoken time and time again: We don’t want any changes to our abortion restrictions. There’s already enough restrictions in the state,” Amanda said. “Many people who are in the House of Representatives have campaigned on the fact that they don’t want that. They said they wouldn’t change the abortion laws, and now we’re here. They’ve lied.”

Around 8:40 p.m., furious chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” broke the anxious silence on the third floor, telling me what I knew would happen but desperately hoped wouldn’t come to pass. In a 72–48 vote, the House had overrode Cooper’s veto. The ban will now go into effect on July 1. After the vote, Cotham, the representative who switched parties, issued a statement riddled with misinformation that said the measure struck a “reasonable balance on the abortion issue.” She described her medically necessary abortion as a “miscarriage,” though as recently as last year, she’d sought the endorsement of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic by citing her abortion.

Outside the House gallery, the air became thick with rage. Police officers advanced toward abortion rights protesters, and for a moment, I wondered if the situation could spin out of control. But a pro-choice organizer stepped up to de-escalate the tension and encourage people to exit the building. Hands shaking as I recorded the scene, I decided I should probably leave too. As someone who has covered abortion rights on and off for a long time — more “on” than anything these days — I rationally knew an override would be the outcome of the vote, but I still felt like I was having an out-of-body experience while walking down the red stairs. Reason goes out the window when this state is your home and your body is now on the line.

Abortion opponents scurried into the night while a majority of the pro-choice protesters gathered in a circle in front of the building. Some cried and held each other. An organizer who had been shepherding people around the legislative building all afternoon stood in the center of the circle and acknowledged the devastating vote result, before rallying everyone into a chant that stayed with me after I left. “The fight is not over,” they shouted in unison. “’Cause we don’t fucking quit. ’Cause we don’t fucking quit. ’Cause we don’t fucking quit.”

The Cut offers an online tool that allows you to search by Zip Code for professional providers, including clinics, hospitals, and independent OB/GYNs, as well as abortion funds, transportation options, and information for remote resources like receiving the abortion pill by mail. For legal guidance, contact Repro Legal Helpline at 844-868-2812 or The Abortion Defense Network.

The Last Stand Against North Carolina’s 12-Week Ban