Sometime in the latter hours of debate over an abortion bill that North Carolina Republicans insisted was not about abortion – even as the words “abortion” and “abortion victims” were uttered some fourteen-thousand times Wednesday – Speaker Tim Moore descended from his perch at the forefront of the state House chamber to debate.
It’s not unheard of for the Speaker, who presides over the House, to leave his post and enter the fray, but even Moore acknowledged this may be the first time he’s parried Democrats directly over abortion, an issue, he gently, paternalistically, reminded us is fraught with emotions.
“You can be the most strident pro-choice supporter and vote for this bill,” Moore pleaded, to little effect. Less than an hour later, House Republicans fell five votes shy of the 72 necessary to overturn Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the so-called “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.”
Of course, it is about abortion. And, of course, it’s inconceivable that a logical, sincere pro-choice supporter could back such a bill, one authored to fill a mythical hole in the law in those ultra-rare instances in which a fetus survives an abortion, ordering that health care professionals provide the same level of care they would to any other person, lest they risk criminal prosecution.
These babies, conservative supporters bleated, are left to shiver and wither on a cold, steel table; deposited in unheated incubators without blankets.
Abortion providers, in this fantastical scenario, are malevolent or hard-hearted baby butchers, not professionals performing a difficult job that’s the legal right of women, women often tortured by the decision and the “godly,” pro-life protesters who seize upon their anguish.
“This is about a baby, and that baby’s rights,” Rep. Pat McElraft, who co-sponsored the House version of the bill, passionately argued Wednesday.
Theirs could be considered a plea to the heart, if not the mind. The mind reels drunkenly over supporters’ claims that no laws protect such babies already – they do, they most certainly do. And the seething suppositions that the presence of two abortion survivors Wednesday – summoned by Republicans for a maudlin, oppressively non-secular press conference – gave “living proof” that doctors kill babies who survive abortion, a staggeringly irrational statement.
“You will stand before a holy God one day. We all will one day, and it’s not going to matter what anybody thought of you and thought of your vote. You will stand before God with no one with you, and he will ask us all, why did you not care?” sermonized Gianna Jessen, as she pointed a finger at reporters.
Jessen, a nationally-known anti-abortion activist from Tennessee, was on hand, even though, Moore submitted again, this had nothing to do with abortion.
“Republican Rep. Keith Kidwell said lawmakers would be voting to allow doctors to ‘kill babies’ if they oppose the veto override. To be clear: that’s not what will happen if the override fails,” News & Observer reporter Andy Specht Tweeted into the void Wednesday, as lawmakers flung such inaccuracies like monkey scat. Indeed, repeating the same falsehood — that no laws protect so-called “born-alive” babies — does not make it true.
In its smothering intimidation of abortion providers and women, perhaps this is no appeal to the heart either, not to the hearts of most Americans. About 58 percent of Americans support abortion rights, a 58 percent that, we may suppose, also loves babies and families.
“No one is pro-abortion,” Rep. Deb Butler, an eastern North Carolina Democrat, offered Wednesday.
Moore – ever the “good cop” in the “good cop, bad cop” act he puts on with Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – pleasantly urged Democrats to “vote their conscience.” And if the bill is, indeed, unnecessary, why not pass it? Moore implored.
Rep. Dana Bumgardner, a Gastonia Republican, importuned of “lives hanging in the balance” with the “born-alive” bill, even as his party – in this very moment – blithely rejects Medicaid expansion, which would expand health care for hundreds of thousands of poor North Carolinians.
It’s been said before that one cannot truly be a hypocrite if they do not hold any dearly held beliefs, a point that resonates often in the political realm.
But if there is belief here – and McElraft’s tearful speech Wednesday suggests there is – don’t seek it in the majority party’s leadership, a group whose divinely-oriented petitions for morality strike a clangorous note. These lawmakers sowed and reaped laws impeding Black voters “with surgical precision”; MacGyver-ed – arguably – the most disgracefully gratuitous gerrymander in the United States; and, in doing so, may have lied to a federal court about it.
The N.C. Insider’s Colin Campbell authored a column this spring that suggested, mostly correctly, that the “born alive” bill was all a misty-eyed plea for emotion, a formless wedge lacking policymaking substance, seemingly chiding progressives as much as conservatives for their furor over a bill with no apparent practical impact.
Campbell’s half right, but there is some “there” there, after all, something more than symbolism in this legislation. Even if the GOP’s bear trap of a bill doesn’t impede a woman’s access to a safe and legal abortion, per se, it is one component of a canny, conservative strategy to undermine Roe v. Wade nationwide, to demonize women and abortion providers, and to harness the power of a Trump-powered Supreme Court to intrude, yet again, upon women and their health.
North Carolina’s “born-alive” bill failed, somewhat quietly Wednesday after the override vote sputtered. There was an awkward pause, and lawmakers, almost serenely, anticlimactically, moved on to actual legislative business – reforms for teacher licensing and liquor permitting.
The protesters who filled the gallery – a Scripture-quoting couple, men and women in pink Planned Parenthood t-shirts, a man in a pink wig and tutu – were left to process the emotion lawmakers had so callously conjured, filing out quietly, a placid denouement for a singularly rare progressive victory in the North Carolina capital.
A strange, bewildering scene, a paradox encapsulated in one awkward encounter, one almost blinding in its allegory, between two people waiting outside the House gallery.
A tousle-headed boy in a blazer, wearing a “pro-life” sticker, injected himself into a forced debate with a woman, lecturing that women shouldn’t be having sex if they don’t want to have a baby.
This beatific boy – who said he was 12 years old – reached his hand into the woman’s face, a surreal gesture, attempting to either touch her hair or face as she stoically argued back. “Are you trying to touch me?” the woman said, recoiling, a scene almost impossible to conceive of had the pro-choice supporter been a man.
The boy moved on – like an untethered weather balloon – to cheerfully harangue other protesters, to high-five a couple donning pro-life stickers. His parents? Who knows? It’s as if he emerged – produced, packaged and programmed – from a factory of the religious right, an aloof, flailing bloc that, time and again, seeks to sanctify an increasingly secular nation without consent.
Now’s as good a time as any, young fella, to learn a lesson.
Keep your hands to yourself, and respect the physical space – not to mention the urgently vital opinions – of women.
Hands off the law too.