- Associated Press - Thursday, January 29, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Abortion-rights groups and their allies on Thursday tried to preserve clinic rules proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration from potential changes by the General Assembly this year that they fear would erode constitutionally protected rights to the procedure.

Several Democratic lawmakers and a physician, speaking at a news conference at the Legislative Building, said the draft rules released last month to comply with a 2013 state law appear focused on patient safety and based on medical facts, not ideology.

The praise contrasts with the severe criticism activists gave McCrory when he signed into law the bill that contained other abortion-related changes. They warned at the time updated rules could lead to widespread clinic closings.

“It appears that the right balance was struck between protecting access to a critical reproductive health care service and overseeing clinic safety standards,” said Dr. Matthew Zerden, a Chapel Hill obstetrician.

Social conservatives have said the proposal doesn’t go far enough and missed the intent of the legislation. A 60-day public comment period on the rules written by the Department of Health and Human Services concludes Friday, with a proposed effective date of April 1. But the legislature could step in and block the rules from being carried out, or mandate certain restrictions be included.

The final decisions should be left to the medical experts and regulators, not politicians, the speakers said.

“We are here today to make clear that politics must be kept out of women’s health care,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, adding that the ultimate goal of those who want to interfere is “shutting off women’s access to safe and legal abortion in North Carolina.”

Two key Republican lawmakers opposed to abortion said Thursday changes are being considered, but for now they appear incremental. For example, the rules need to be more firm to require the state Division of Health Service Regulation to inspect the state’s 14 current clinics annually, said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake. And the rules would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work at a clinic.

“There were some improvements in the rules, but some things we just felt like fell short,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke. He said he didn’t expect legislation to broadly disapprove the rules. Doing so would likely restart the process 18 months after the bill was signed into law.

Any changes would still be subject to McCrory’s veto stamp.

Flanked by representatives of Planned Parenthood Action Fund in North Carolina and NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, the Democratic lawmakers praised many of the draft rules and the work of DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos. They cited in part requirements that clinics provide on-site recovery areas and a staffed 24-hour phone line for patients with complications.

Jessica Wood, a spokeswoman for the socially conservative North Carolina Values Coalition, said abortion-rights groups want to preserve the proposed rules because of their involvement drawing them up. Planned Parenthood said it provided input to DHHS on the rules.

At least seven laws related to abortion policy or funding have been approved since Republicans took over the legislature in 2011, according to Stam’s office. All or portions of three of the laws have been blocked in court.

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