WASHINGTON DC – When Roe vs Wade is overturned, as it almost certainly will be this summer, the entire United States will be affected. But not every region will be affected in the same way. In some states, abortion will still be available, at least until Republicans take the Senate, House of Representatives and White House and institute a federal ban – as they have already publicly said they are considering.
In some states – many, in fact – abortion will be illegal. Then there are states like North Carolina, which, for political and geographic reasons, will take on new salience after the decision is formally handed down.
Abortion will remain legal in North Carolina – but it’s hard to say exactly what that legality will look like.
The state has a law from 1881 that says that abortion should be illegal, explained Rebecca Kreitzer, associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But there is another law from 1967 (which predates the 1973 Roe decision in the Supreme Court) that said certain exceptions could be made under certain circumstances. And after Roe, a new state law brought North Carolina into compliance with the decision. Although restrictions still exist, abortion will remain legal if Roe is overturned. But will North Carolina revert back to the 1967 law? Or to more recently modified legislation?
“It’s hard to say,” Kreitzer said. But there will, in all likelihood, be a “mad dash to create policy and modify existing policy”.
At the moment, there’s only so much anti-choice policy the state legislature can codify. That’s because, though both houses of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans, the governor Roy Cooper is a Democrat who can – as he has in the past when Republicans tried to push through bans on abortions – use his power of veto. Or he can use veto power until the gubernatorial election in 2024, and provided Democrats can stave off a Republican supermajority (a legislative majority large enough to override the governor’s veto) in the midterm elections this autumn.
“The thing that keeps abortion legal” in North Carolina “is the governor’s veto”, said Blair Reeves, executive director of Carolina Forward, a progressive policy non-profit. “His veto is on the ballot this fall.” Carolina Forward, for its part, has endorsed a slate of pro-choice candidates. The key objective for this election cycle, Reeves said, is “holding the veto. I think we can do that.”
North Carolina is currently a “purple” state, meaning it isn’t solidly Democrat blue or Republican red. Reeves is convinced that it is trending Democratic even though it went for Donald Trump in 2020.
But trending Democrat doesn’t mean votes for abortion rights are a sure thing, even among North Carolina’s women voters. As Kreitzer noted, partisanship, race and religion are better indicators of how a person will vote on abortion rights than gender. While white women who graduated from college went for President Joe Biden in 2020, white women with limited or no college education overwhelmingly voted for Trump, according to exit polls.
To protect the right to choose, “white women have to vote with black women”, said Kristie Puckett Williams of American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “That’s just it.”
“This is a human rights issue,” she said. People “have to stop playing partisan politics with bodily autonomy”. But residents of North Carolina aren’t the only ones whose right to access abortion depends on it.
North Carolina’s neighbouring and nearby states – South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee – either have trigger laws that will ban abortion or are expected to pass legislation that will as soon as Roe is overturned.
“Assuming that the Dobbs [vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization] leak draft opinion stands, most of the states surrounding us won’t have abortion anymore,” said Heather Mobley of Charlotte for Choice, a grassroots group dedicated to protecting the right to an abortion, including clinic defence.
For people in all of these states, and indeed the south-east of the country more broadly, North Carolina may well be the closest place to which they can travel to get an abortion.
[See also: How to get an abortion in post-“Roe” America]
The clinics in North Carolina are already being aggressively protested, and those who work to provide abortions and protect those going to get abortions are expecting to see increasing vitriol in further protests. And with more out-of-state patients, it will be harder for everyone, in and out of state, to get an appointment for an abortion. (“Unfortunately,” Mobley noted, patients in the Deep South with only one clinic in their state “have already been seeing this”.)
Lauren O, a board member of the Carolina Abortion Fund who asked not to be identified by her full family name, said that the organisation expects demand for abortions in North Carolina to increase by more than 4,000 per cent. This means that even if abortion remains legal in the state, it will, in practice, be less accessible even for the state’s own residents.
“People from North Carolina are going to be forced to seek care out of state because of this decision,” she wrote in an email. “We do not have enough abortion providers and clinics to service our own population and the people who will come from out of state. That will result in residents of NC who legally can access care here forced to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles because all the appointments here are booked weeks and months out.”
Still, those working on a state and local level in North Carolina to protect the right and ability to access an abortion feel prepared – or, at least, more prepared than many in Washington DC appear to be.
“We were absolutely far more prepared for this than many politicians,” Lauren O wrote. “We have seen this coming for 3+ years and have prepared by building up critical infrastructure and capacity, prioritising digital security, and being as loud as possible about what was coming.”