Doctors could face fines of $10,000 or more for performing an abortion that was requested because of the gender of the fetus, under Republican-backed legislation that won approval Wednesday in a North Carolina House committee.
A majority on a House judiciary panel sent to the full House a measure prohibiting what are called sex-selective abortions. It marks the first real activity on abortion rules since 2011 when a new Republican majority at the General Assembly passed new limits on the procedure over the objections of then-Gov. Beverly Perdue. Some of that law was struck down by a federal court.
Sponsors of the new bill said they believe more legislators could get behind a bill that would prohibit a medical provider from "knowingly or recklessly" performing an abortion when the child's sex is a "significant factor" in a pregnant woman's request for the procedure.
"It will keep abortion legal. It will keep abortion safe," said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, the chief sponsor of this bill and the 2011 restrictions. "It will just no longer be discriminatory."
Abortion rights supporters accused bill sponsors of bias against pregnant woman dealing with a painful decision about carrying to term and of stigmatizing immigrants from countries where the low status of women triggers gender-selective abortions.
"This bill is a bill that discriminates specifically against Asian American women," said Milan Pham, representing the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.
The United Nations has raised concerns about gender bias in favor of boys in parts of Asia that leads to abortions of female fetuses.
The problem in other countries is deeply rooted in gender inequity and abortion bans are ineffective in changing that, said Jina Dhillon, president of North Carolina Women United. She told the committee the bill attempts to cloak the ultimate goal of sponsors to end all abortions. Instead, said Dhillon, who describes herself as south Asian, "my elected officials are perpetuating stereotypes about Asian women."
Lawmakers should address racial disparities in health care, equal pay initiatives and domestic violence if they wish to solve the root of gender discrimination, Pham and others said.
Five states have sex-selective abortion bans, according to Barbara Holt with North Carolina Right to Life.
The bill's sponsors provided no evidence the practice is a problem in North Carolina, but Samuelson said bills have been filed in the past about sex discrimination in education and employment in North Carolina. "I would level the question that why wouldn't there be sex discrimination in abortion," she said.
Samuelson said the bill is no way "intended to discriminate against immigrants" and said she and her husband adopted their daughter "from a country where women were not favored."
The bill would allow the woman who received the abortion or the woman's spouse, parent, guardian or health care provider to sue the abortion provider. A judge could hold the doctor in contempt and fine the physician $10,000 for the first violation and $100,000 on the third and subsequent violations.
"This bill is about preventing discrimination in the womb, and affirming discrimination based on sex is not acceptable in this state," said Tami Fitzgerald, head of the conservative North Carolina Values Coalition. "There is nothing pro-woman about killing a baby girl simply because she is a female and putting her mother's health at risk in the process."
Physicians who perform abortions or treat women in high-risk pregnancies told the panel the restrictions would make both doctors and patients reluctant to speak frankly for fear of litigation and fines.
Dr. Joshua Nitsche of Winston-Salem said a woman may need to abort her fetus to protect her own health, but "a passing comment like 'I always wanted a girl,' could force me to refuse her this life-saving procedure or risk fines up to $100,000."
"I'm not sure what steps I would need to take in order to comply with this law," said Dr. Erika Levi, a Chapel Hill OB-GYN who performs abortions.
The bill passed on a voice vote, with two Democrats voting no. One of the Democrats, Rep. Deborah Ross of Wake County, unsuccessfully offered amendments narrowing the scope of the bill.