N.C. Legislature Overrides Veto, Enacts Protection from Abortion for Unborn after 12 Weeks
The North Carolina legislature voted Tuesday to prohibit elective abortions after 12 weeks, up from the previous limit of 20 weeks, overriding a veto from Governor Roy Cooper (D) by the slimmest possible margin. Republicans described the measure as a “compromise” bill designed to retain the support of their entire coalition, which had recently expanded to give their party a super-majority, while a Democratic senator called the bill “unthinkable and cruel.” But state Senator Joyce Kraweic, who sponsored the bill, said on “Washington Watch,” “it’s a great day in North Carolina, for sure.”
North Carolina Republicans’ chance to improve legislative protections for the unborn suddenly improved in April, after Charlotte-area Rep. Tricia Cotham declared she would switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Her move gave Republicans a supermajority in the House — 72 out of 120 seats, or 60%. Republicans already held a supermajority in the Senate (30 out of 50 seats). As recently as 2022, Cotham had written on a Planned Parenthood questionnaire that she was an “unwavering advocate for abortion rights” and would “oppose any legislation that restrict abortion access.”
On May 2, the House and Senate formed a conference on SB 20, resulting in a bill that tightened restrictions on elective abortion from 20 weeks to 12 weeks (with exceptions for “a medical emergency,” rape and incest exceptions through 20 weeks, and a “life-limiting anomaly” through 24 weeks). The bill also stipulates reporting requirements for abortion, establishes conscience protections, articulates informed consent requirements, imposes a 72-hour waiting period, and grants a pregnant woman the right to view the ultrasound. It included a ban on partial birth abortion, the Born-Alive Survivors Act, funding to support mothers, and adoption incentives. “This was a big bill, comprehensive in nature, in terms of protecting life,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, host of “Washington Watch.”
Cooper vetoed the bill on May 14 after canvassing Republican legislators in hopes of persuading one to flip. In his veto message, Cooper recycled the standard pro-abortion talking points: “This bill will create dangerous interference with the doctor-patient relationship, leading to harm for pregnant women and their families. With its medically unnecessary obstacles and restrictions, it will make abortion unavailable to many women.” By “medically unnecessary obstacles and restrictions,” Cooper likely meant the ultrasound requirement, which is medically necessary, and waiting period provision, which gives women time to reflect so they don’t make a choice they later regret, causing later health issues. Cooper had previously argued that even the state’s 20-week restriction on abortion was “fundamentally wrong.”
Yet all four of the moderate Republicans Cooper targeted voted to override his veto. This includes Cotham, whose position on abortion had sufficiently changed from 2022 that she could say, “After extensive review, I believe this bill strikes a reasonable balance on the abortion issue and represents a middle ground that anyone not holding one of the two extremist positions can support.”
In the end, both the House (72-48) and Senate (30-20) passed the veto override on May 16 without a single vote to spare.
When Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, North Carolina had a pro-abortion governor not up for election until 2024, a legislative majority that fell short of the veto override threshold, and a state supreme court hostile to the Republican legislature and the district maps they drew. In the 2022 elections, Republicans gained a net two seats in the House, two seats in the Senate, and two seats in the Supreme Court. The gains were significant, but not decisive; Republicans flipped the Supreme Court and achieved a supermajority in the Senate, but they were still one vote short of a supermajority in the House. Rep. Cotham’s party switch in April gave Republicans the final vote they needed to override the governor’s veto.
Cooper reacted to the veto override by alleging without evidence that the Republican legislative supermajority was at odds with North Carolina voters. “Strong majorities of North Carolinians don’t want right-wing politicians in the exam room with women and their doctors,” he said. Cooper’s counterintuitive claim is that a “strong majority” of North Carolinians want something different than a “strong majority” of the legislature they elected. How could the governor possibly know that? Did he personally discuss the topic with a “strong majority” of the state’s 10 million residents?
Based on recent partisan rhetoric, Cooper could be making at least two possible arguments — alleging the legislature is unrepresentative or that the voters had not expressed their will on this issue. If Cooper is suggesting — with the state supreme court’s late Democratic majority — that a gerrymandered map thwarted the majority of voters, the facts simply don’t agree. At the risk of oversimplification — because the popular vote elects no one — Republicans in 2022 won 57% of the popular vote for the North Carolina House, compared to the Democrats’ 42% — an absolute drubbing almost as large as their legislative majority. To restate that information more correctly, 15% more voters voted for Republican candidates for the state House than for Democratic ones.
Alternatively, Cooper could be channeling the sentiment North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton expressed, when he complained that the bill “was passed so rapidly that I don’t really feel like voters got the opportunity to hear and understand and put their input into what they would have liked to have seen out of this.” Let me pull out the ol’ Schoolhouse Rock, because I must have missed the verse in “I’m Just a Bill” where the legislature can’t vote on a bill until they first measure the winds of public sentiment.
Of course, legislatures need not survey public opinion to “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The whole point of a legislature is that popular authority delegated to elected representatives is easier to wield than a plebiscite. Executive rulemaking is subject to public comment because those rules are made by unelected bureaucrats. But when state legislatures pass laws, the voters have already expressed their will by electing those representatives and senators.
In modern American politics, many candidates advertise up front how they would vote on a range of issues, few of which are as prominent as abortion in the first election held after the overturn of Roe. Voters elected state legislators, at least in part, based upon how they stood on these issues. This practice gives voters even more input into the laws by which they are governed than the basic foundation of representative government.
I suspect, however, that a full plebiscite wasn’t what Clayton had in mind when he wished for the public to “put their input into” the bill. Rather, he was complaining the legislature acted too quickly for progressives to mount a full-blown circus of activist intimidation and media pressure. The Left’s favorite new tactic to oppose commonsense legislation in deep-Red states is to organize rowdy and/or disruptive protests in the state capitol. It only takes a few hundred activists (a fringe minority in any state) to present a show of force and attract fawning media attention. And according to their upside-down priorities, it’s an added bonus if the people’s elected representatives take any steps to punish this flagrant defiance of authority.
Indeed, with two weeks’ notice before the veto override, the Left was beginning to rehearse the same farce in North Carolina. Per the Associated Press (who frames the misbehavior as positively as possible):
“After the final vote Tuesday in the North Carolina House, abortion-rights advocates and Democrats in the chamber gallery loudly booed the outcome and shouted ‘Shame!’ Many observers in the gallery were escorted out by General Assembly police. Similar displeasure poured out after the earlier North Carolina Senate debate … ”
In other words, what Clayton meant — and what Governor Cooper echoed — is something akin to, “Oh, if only our psychological brute squad had longer to terrorize the legislature into surrender!”
But they might be mistaken. This year has yielded many examples of Republican state legislatures tuning out the antics of leftist pressure campaigns. One reason might be that their moralistic barbs are so poorly aimed. What, for instance, is so shameful about protecting the life of an unborn baby? Proverbs (26:2) says, “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight” — to use a more modern word picture, the Left’s punches aren’t landing. This is not surprising; by embracing intimidation, the leftists protesting at state capitols aren’t even trying to persuade legislators — it’s not even clear they know how — which means their rhetorical barbs are designed merely for adulation inside their own echo chamber.
“This is not just about protecting unborn children,” said Perkins. “Critics often say, ‘Well, you don’t care about babies once they come out of the womb. You don’t care about their mothers.’ But this bill is further evidence that that is not true.” Krawiec agreed, “We want to encourage moms to have their babies. … So often they think abortion is their only option, and that is just not true.” She added that it was “ironic” to hear abortion proponents complaining the bill’s medical safety standards would force abortion centers to close down, which to her amounted to an “admission that they didn’t care about taking care of women.”
Veto overrides are not for the faint of heart. Not only do they inherently involve publicly contradicting another branch of government, but they also require legislators to muster up the courage a second time for a politically hazardous vote.
Yet state legislators have recently demonstrated no shortage of courage in rebuking a governor’s ill-advised veto. Six weeks before the North Carolina legislature overrode Governor Cooper’s abortion veto, the Kentucky legislature overrode Governor Andy Beshear’s (D) veto on a bill to protect parental rights in education, student privacy in locker rooms, and minors from gender transition procedures — despite disruptive heckling in the balcony. Two years ago, the Arkansas legislature overrode a veto by then-Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who is now running for president, to enact the nation’s very first law protecting minors from gender transition procedures — thus kickstarting a wave of legislation that has now expanded to nearly 20 states.
Pro-life legislators in North Carolina played a difficult hand well. They began the year unable to pass any pro-life legislation over Governor Cooper’s likely veto. Then Rep. Cotham’s disillusion with the Democratic Party gave them an opportunity, and they either coaxed, or at least welcomed, her partisan switch. Knowing that the bill could not survive a single casualty, they ironed out all the wrinkles before publicizing the final product. By keeping their cards close to their vest, the leadership of North Carolina’s razor-thin Republican supermajority evaded considerable enemy fire and were toppling Governor Cooper’s veto before pro-abortion forces could properly mobilize against them.
North Carolina pro-lifers could have passed a heartbeat (six-week) bill like Georgia or Florida, or possibly a complete prohibition on abortion like other states. But that would surely get vetoed, and they would lack the votes to override. Instead, they listened to every member — especially those likely to waver — and took care to address their concerns, thus enabling them to hold the entire coalition together through the override vote. The result — a bill restricting abortion after 12 weeks with exceptions running even later — is far from pro-lifers’ ideal, but it substantially improves upon the state’s previous law restricting abortion after 20 weeks. And it represents the absolutely best bill North Carolina could pass (down to the last vote) under prevailing political conditions.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.