NC Dems unanimously co-sponsored a bill to codify Roe. What this really means | Analysis

Alex Slitz/

North Carolina Democrats kicked off the legislative long session with a declaration — our elected officials are putting up a united front in the fight for abortion access. At least for now.

Last Wednesday, every Democrat in the both chambers of the NC General Assembly co-sponsored legislation that would codify Roe v. Wade, and prevent the state from banning abortion before fetal viability. That level of unity is atypical for pro-abortion bills, where more moderate members have sided with Republicans on previous restrictions.

“I am proud that our caucuses decided to introduce this bill, to let every North Carolinian know that we are ready to stand up and protect their values, their choices and their freedom,” House Minority Leader Robert Reives said at last week’s press conference on the jointly filed bills.

Republicans have a veto-proof supermajority in the N.C. Senate and are a single seat away from a supermajority in the N.C. House. That means in the House, every Democrat has to oppose harmful legislation to avoid Republicans overriding a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.

In previous years, a select few moderate Democrats have sided with Republicans on abortion bills, such as the “Born-Alive” bill from 2019 and the 2021 bill prohibiting abortion procedures based on race or ability of the embryo. Specifically, party members told me last month that they were concerned about two House Democrats, Reps. Garland Pierce and Michael Wray, who had supported these controversial abortion restrictions.

Getting these moderate Democrats to agree to codifying Roe is a significant win. It also demonstrates the power of the party’s political leaders, who were able to find consensus on the bill with all members of the delegation. The same may not be true of Republicans, who are still negotiating within the party to see just how far they’ll go to restrict the bodily autonomy of pregnant patients in North Carolina.

“I honestly was a little surprised, based on what I had heard in the press and from our speaker about what our caucus stood for,” Rep. Julie Von Haefen, one of the most vocal abortion rights advocates in the General Assembly, told me this week. “Sometimes you hear that and you think you know where people stand, and I was extremely proud and excited to see all of us stand up for abortion rights, and hopefully that’s a good sign of things to come.”

Make no mistake, this bill won’t live to see the fluorescent lights of the General Assembly chambers. House Speaker Tim Moore essentially shrugged the bill off last week, telling reporters that he doubted it would be considered. That’s not surprising — so long as Republicans are in control, bills like this will never get the attention and debate that they deserve.

There’s also no guarantee that some moderate Democrats will stay in the fold on abortion. In the last few years, North Carolina’s anti-abortion bills have been drafted to appear as moderate or “common sense.” The Born Alive bill, for example, provided protections for any infant “born alive” during an abortion, something that is extremely unlikely (and there are similar protections already on the books). Such a bill created a false depiction of abortion patients and their doctors as malicious, heartless individuals who would kill a baby old enough to survive outside the womb.

These types of bills may win over Democratic legislators who represent more moderate to conservative constituencies. If Republicans can’t come to an agreement on an outright ban, it’s possible we could see more “common sense” bills instead.

Von Haefen notes that she still wants to see North Carolina take a stronger stance on abortion care. She told me she intends to file a version of the 2021 “RBG Act,” which would do away with some of the barriers abortion patients face in the state. That bill, too, would be unlikely to appear on the House floor.

Meanwhile, the bill codifying Roe does just that: it codifies Roe v. Wade without tackling arbitrary restrictions on abortion access in the state. It would not expand abortion access — it just maintains the status quo. But even if this legislation fails to pass, it sends a message to North Carolinians on both sides of the aisle: Democrats are going to put up a fight.