Asheville abortion clinic would be only one in NC to meet new restrictions

If the North Carolina General Assembly adopts last-minute bill amendments that would change the state's requirements for abortion clinics, Asheville's FemCare Inc. could be the only one of 16 in the state able to meet the proposed guidelines and stay open.

“Our understanding is that the only center that currently meets ambulatory surgical center guidelines is FemCare in Asheville,” says Melissa Reed, vice president for public affairs of Planned Parenthood Health System, which has an office in Raleigh. “None of the Planned Parenthood centers in the state currently meet those guidelines.”

Asheville FemCare Inc., which was bombed in 1999 and has been the target of numerous protests by anti-abortion activists in the past, declined to comment, saying they do not wish to talk to members of the media about the bill at this time.

In a July 2 evening session, N.C. Senate members added the proposed changes as part of House Bill 695, which bans Sharia law. The amended bill passed the Senate on July 3, and now goes back to the house for review. Gov. Pat McCrory criticized the legislative procedures that allowed the bill to pass the Senate, saying in a statement, "When the Democrats were in power, this is the way they did business. It was not right then and it is not right now.  Regardless of what party is in charge or what important issue is being discussed, the process must be appropriate and thorough.”

Should the amended bill pass, abortion clinics would have to meet a new set of standards similar to those for outpatient surgery clinics, such as providing an onsite recovery phase for patients and having a transfer agreement with a hospital. Reed says that meeting the bill's proposed standards would cost abortion clinics and centers across the state "hundreds and thousands of dollars."

Sen. Martin Nesbitt told Xpress that he's concerned about local and statewide implications of the bill. "It wouldn't be a good situation for those [people] having to come [to Buncombe] or those of us here [in the eastern part of the state]. We aren't trying to become the total destination for women's health care. These centers provide mammograms, cervical screenings and do a lot of things for women; and you need more than one in the state.”

The senator, who represents Buncombe County, says that he and his staff were briefed on the issue after 9 p.m. on July 2. The next morning, Nesbitt told members of the Senate, “All of you are welcome to visit Asheville. We have one of everything and two of most … we try to provide for our people. But I don't think that people from down here [Raleigh] ought to have to travel to Asheville to get quality health care and to exercise their constitutional rights.”

But the bill passed the Senate with a vote of 29-12. The House will review the changes.

“We feel very frustrated that our facilities are already heavily regulated by the state's department of Health and Human Services," says Reed. "We have to have a permit and we comply with all of those regulations. … They say it's about patient safety, but it's really about accessing women's health services.”

Reed also says that the local ramifications of the bill could be very serious. “People who oppose abortion have a history of being very violent, targeting not only clinics [and] providers but the patients and staff who work at these clinics as well.”

On March 11, 1999, the Asheville FemCare Inc. clinic was bombed and the event made national news: According to a CNN report, the bomb went off about 30 minutes before the clinic was set to open that morning. The blast could be heard from several blocks away, although the bomb only partially detonated. No one was hurt or injured.

Local Rep. Susan Fisher says she remembers the incident. Though she was not in Raleigh during the Senate vote, the Buncombe County representative says that she's outraged by the provisions. “It's the whole idea of putting a target on Asheville. It really does sort of single us out as this place that people need to attack or avoid or think of as out of the mainstream when, actually, what we're trying to do is provide health care and services for women who would be denied otherwise.”

Planned Parenthood of Asheville reports that it treated 3,058 patients last year, of which 4 percent were referred for abortions. (Planned Parenthood of Asheville does not provide abortion services, only referrals.)

In response to the state legislation, hundreds of women and men descended onto the state capital July 3 to protest the bill's provisions.

“The women of this state woke up and came to Raleigh,” Nesbitt says.“ I think there's a powerful enough effort to put a stop to some of this.

— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cbyrd@mountainx.com.

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