In the months after the fall of Roe v. Wade, North Carolina experienced the largest spike in abortions of any state - its numbers fueled by a relatively permissive law and a Democratic governor promising to block the Republican-led legislature from enacting antiabortion measures.
But in recent weeks hard-liners in Raleigh have launched a plan to override a future veto and ban abortions as soon as around six weeks of pregnancy.
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At the center of the effort are a handful of Democratic legislators with a history of voting for antiabortion legislation and who could now provide the GOP with enough votes to override a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper (D). That group, which includes two pastors of predominantly-Black Baptist churches, is facing pressure from both sides.
"I lay down with it, I wake up with it," said Democratic state Rep. Garland Pierce, who leads the congregation at Bright Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Laurinburg, N.C. "When you reach deep down you want to be sure you're doing the right thing."
The showdown in North Carolina reflects similar efforts underway in several conservative states that have become destinations for post-Roe abortion care. In Florida and Nebraska - where laws still allow the vast majority of abortions to continue - conservatives are also pushing for six-week bans, which, together with the same kind of ban in North Carolina, could dramatically reshape the national abortion landscape once again.
Legal abortions increased in all three states after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion in June, according to an October report from WeCount, a research project led by the pro-abortion rights Society of Family Planning.
North Carolina has emerged as a major abortion refuge, with a law that allows abortions up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The state legislature's unusual dynamics were apparent this week after the full Democratic membership signed onto a bill that would codify Roe v. Wade into law. Democratic leaders had intended the legislation to be a show of unity on abortion, though nobody expects it to pass in the Republican-dominated legislature.
"The one thing that's clear in North Carolina is that Democrats are united on protecting women's rights and access to abortion," said Morgan Jackson, an adviser to Cooper. "Republicans have been crowing for months that they have a path to abortion restrictions. The Democrats closed the door on that."
But Pierce made clear that, despite the appearance of party unity, the door to an abortion ban remains open.
He told The Washington Post that he had been under enormous pressure and that he signed onto the bill with Democrats this week to "stop the bleeding."
"Everybody changes their mind about things and we'll see how it goes," he said.
"The process has just started," he added. "This is the first quarter."
Democrats have little margin for error.
Republicans fell just one seat short during last year's midterm elections of securing a veto-proof majority in the state House that conservatives had hoped would propel a new abortion law. If they can win over just one House Democrat, antiabortion leaders say they'll likely have the votes to replace the state's current 20-week limit.
Republicans already have enough votes in the Senate to override a veto. But the Senate leader, Phil Berger, has yet to endorse a six-week ban. Instead, he has publicly backed a less restrictive 12-week limit.
NC Values Coalition, one of the leading antiabortion groups in North Carolina, has drafted a six-week abortion ban that they are offering to legislators "as a starting point," said Tami Fitzgerald, the group's executive director. She said they are starting the process of contacting Democrats who have voted for previous antiabortion legislation.
While Fitzgerald declined to offer specific names, her group is likely targeting three Democrats who voted in 2021 to pass the "Human Life Nondiscrimination Act," which would have banned abortions on the basis of the fetus' race, sex, or a diagnosis of Down syndrome but was vetoed by the governor. That list includes Rep. Michael Wray, a small-business owner, as well as the two pastors - Pierce and Rep. Amos Quick, who leads the Calvary Baptist Church in Greensboro.
Wray and Quick did not respond to requests for an interview.
For Democrats who have voted with Republicans on abortion, the issue is often a deeply personal one, said James Gailliard, a former Democratic state representative who lost reelection in November.
"We don't talk enough about this but some of your most conservative people are Black Christians," said Gailliard, who counted himself among the Black pastors at the Capitol who fall to the right of their party on abortion. "It becomes a real struggle for those of us who are people of faith."
Some Democratic leaders in the state say they understand that there's still some question as to how the socially-conservative Democrats will vote on upcoming abortion legislation.
"Signing onto this I don't think precludes anybody from doing anything in the future," said House Minority Leader Robert Reives, a Democrat. But he added that he'd be "very, very surprised" if any Democrats decided to support a bill banning abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected.
In Florida, the push for stricter restrictions could pit Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who indicated on Wednesday that he would sign a six-week ban, against the Republican leader of the state Senate, who has advocated for her party to move more slowly on abortion.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said at a November news conference that her hands were tied until the Florida Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the 15-week ban passed last year, which has been in effect since the summer, a decision that may not come until after the 2023 legislative session concludes. Passidomo later told the Tampa Bay Times that she would support a 12-week ban with exceptions for rape and incest, adding in a subsequent news conference in December that she had not spoken with DeSantis about the abortion issue.
In a vacuum, Passidomo would prefer not to further restrict abortion in Florida, said Florida Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D), who says she is close with Passidomo and says she speaks to her regularly about abortion.
"I know her heart on this issue. She has young girls," Book said. While Passidomo ultimately voted for the 15-week ban, she pushed for the bill to include exceptions for rape and incest - and was angry, Book said, when it passed without them.
Passidomo's office declined to make her available for an interview.
Despite her own preferences, Passidomo may struggle to stop a six-week ban if DeSantis throws his full support behind the measure. While some Republicans fear losing moderate voters if they embrace strict abortion limits, DeSantis faces a different calculation now that he has already won a reelection landslide and is said to be eyeing a White House run. Signing a six-week ban would likely help boost his standing with evangelical voters crucial in a GOP presidential primary.
"It appears that the governor and the House support a heartbeat bill," said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, the state's largest antiabortion group. "The question is will that pass out with or without exceptions."
In Nebraska, a roughly six-week ban with exceptions for rape and incest has already been introduced by state Sen. Joni Albrecht, who identifies as a Republican in Nebraska's unique legislature where lawmakers are technically nonpartisan.
By Albrecht's informal whip count, she is one lawmaker shy of feeling confident she can lock up the votes needed to overcome a filibuster and pass legislation representing a significant departure from the state's current prohibition on abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy.
"I can't say that I'm confident, but I am very hopeful that this is what the floor of the legislature will come to know as being what is right for Nebraska," she said.
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