- [Kelly] The State Attorney General joins a lawsuit to reserve abortion medication access.
And we discuss the 2023 legislative session so far.
This is "State Lines" - [Announcer] Quality public television is made possible through the financial contributions of viewers like you who invite you to join them in supporting PBS NC.
[suspenseful music] ♪ - Welcome to "State Lines" I'm Kelly McCullen.
And joining me for this week's show, Senator Ben Sawry of Johnston County, Dawn Vaughan of "The News & Observer" Wake County Senator Sidney Batch and Political Analyst and PR guru, Pat Ryan.
Is that an appropriate description of?
- Yeah, I'm not gonna argue.
[all laugh] Well, is it halftime?
I got in trouble in the green room.
I said, "Hey, halftime..." Or spring break of the general assembly.
You two senators have been busy this session.
Lawmakers took a break, they say, from committee hearings and floor votes this week.
Yes, that is what happened.
It is called by some people spring break.
By now, the general assembly has passed among many things, a repeal of the sheriff's ability to issue local pistol purchase permits.
And that required the first gubernatorial veto override.
So that got attention.
House has moved a budget, the Senate's sitting on it.
We've had possible Medicaid expansion, and one house Democrat switch to a Republican party to statistically give both the House and Senate super majorities.
Dawn Vaughan, as a reporter, that's all that's happened.
- Yeah [laughs] so I mean, spring break probably couldn't have come at a better time, considering all the drama the few weeks before it.
And it is kind of, it's halftime, it's midpoint in the session, the House budget...
The budget may not be as controversial as it's been in years past.
And so the House passed their budget.
Senate's will come out in mid-May.
We've had the first veto override, and like you said, Cotham's switching parties.
So when things start again next week, everyone will be watching to see is there more drama?
Is it just gonna be, all right, let's move some bills.
Is sports betting gonna move ahead?
Some other issues that have come up.
So we're mid drama.
I feel like there's going to be more.
We'll probably move the FUBAR meter in the press room again.
We'll find out.
[laughs] - Senator Batch, they call it drama.
These reporters love it.
It's fun, it makes for TV shows, it makes for blogs.
Would you call it drama?
How would you assess halftime as a Democrat in the Senate?
- Well, so some of us work, right?
Ben and I actually work for a living outside of the building.
So I was actually at my law firm doing that work and catching up.
But what I would say is, a lot of attention has been paid to a number of the bills that have moved through, especially the override.
There's been a lot of attention on the pistol permit repeal, and there's been a lot of controversy.
I think that it was appropriate to talk about that at the level it was.
You know, I'm a gun owner.
And my husband and I were recently at a shooting range last week, and then we're at a different gun store this week as well.
And it was interesting, 'cause I heard from a several employees, and then also an owner of the shooting range that we go to, that people, including a number of felons, have actually gone in to buy guns.
They think that what they're hearing in the press is, oh, everybody can get a gun.
The great part is, is that of course, the nix system is preventing that from happening.
But what we didn't do when we had the opportunity to do, is close the individual gun loophole.
So individuals who still can sell a gun to someone else, can go in a parking lot or in their house, and then they can sell it to a felon without having to do a background check, so- - I've heard that too.
I've got a good friend that's in the grassroots, the gun movement, or they support constitutional carry, things of that nature.
And he said a lot of people are misinformed, Pat, they just don't understand.
You must have a permit, you must go through a background check.
So you know, policy aside, there's a PR game here that has to be worked out.
Your assessment of the pacing of the 2023 session, now that you're outside the bubble.
- Sure, so what's been remarkable to me, I think, is the the restraint so far, relative to some of the doomsday prophecies before election day last year, right?
You know, some of the political rhetoric was, they're going to ban abortion at all times.
They're going to do these, you know, fairly extreme measures that are, you know, they would describe as far right.
But that hasn't really happened.
There have been pretty familiar arguments over appointment supports and commissions, powers between the legislative and executive branches.
Certainly guns is a perennial topic, right?
But there hasn't been much that I think anybody could describe as outside the bounds of reason, or outside the bounds of what could reasonably be expected, even with functional super majorities until last week, and now actual super majorities.
- The Republicans are doing everything they said they were gonna do in the fall.
You know, I'd asked Berger and Moore and other leaders about, what are your priorities?
And once the session started, and it's kinda falling in line with that.
You can look at the list of Cooper vetoes, and like just check everything off as things go.
And they've worked their way through those.
- And we're only 92 days into the actual session.
- That's true.
- So let's be clear, it's early.
We got a whole year and a half to go.
- And this is, I mean, you know, for everybody, this is my 92nd day.
I'm a first term, so I'm learning a lot as I go.
But what's been interesting to me is where Cooper has chosen not to issue a veto, just because I think some of the bills that have run through so far is really common sense legislation that's attracted bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle, both the sponsors and in the chambers as well.
So I'm encouraged and optimistic about where the session's going.
I think it's a testament to see that we're having serious policy discussions with leaders in both chambers.
- I mean, I have to say, when I was a reporter down there every day, we always focused on the controversy.
Most of the bills seem to be bipartisan, or most are innocuous or actually boring pieces of legislation.
After 92 days, as a senator, have all your dreams come true?
Is this everything you've expected?
Do you like the pay, the benefits, and the time you need to put into being a senator?
- Yeah, the 13,391, it's really... You know, I like the citizen legislature idea.
Because at the end of the night, Senator Batch and I, we go home, we see our families.
We have a job, we're connected to people.
And we're having to live out some of these experiences we're legislating.
It's been fascinating to watch and to learn.
I think finally, the last half of it, I started to get some sea legs underneath me, and really was able to work through the process.
Actually, I got two bills passed to the Senate Chamber.
We've drafted and introduced some really serious policy that's again, not gonna be the headline grabbing stuff that makes the top of the News & Observer or WRL's articles, but really has an impact on somebody's life.
- Well, I will say, I write about policy all the time.
- No, no, no.
- Not, you know - You don't feed into that.
- Sans Dawn, everyone else in the press core.
- Well, and the drama is, I mean, the lawmakers are the ones creating it.
So we tell people what's happening.
But also, there are things, and I wrote this story and I'll trot it out every time someone on the floor will say, "Nobody covers us when we get along," is on these different early childhood things.
So there is a lot of bipartisan work going on.
And even with the Republican Party, just because they're in control doesn't mean they all agree.
So it's when I cover Durham, which is very blue, it was a bunch of Democrats fighting with each other and now it might be all Republicans fighting with each other, and it's gonna show that spectrum of policy positions, even though overall they're on one side.
- So 92 days in office.
He's already humbly bragged about having two bills clear the Senate and become law.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has joined several other attorneys general in challenging a recent federal court order that could stop distribution of a key drug used in medical abortions.
A Texas-based federal judge ruled the FDA overreached 23 years ago in approving mifepristone, if I got that right.
A Washington state-based federal judge has issued a counter ruling protecting access to the medication.
So we're kind of stuck in the middle here.
Attorney General Stein, though, is making his opinion known, releasing a statement saying, "Medication abortion is safe and effective, "and has been for decades.
"The medication is safer than Tylenol and Viagra.
"The judge's decision is wrong on every level."
He chose Viagra, Sydney Batch.
- That was his choice words.
What I would tell you is that- - [Kelly] What are we saying there?
- Well, I don't know what he is saying.
I can't speak to him.
What I will say- - But you are an- - I am an attorney.
You are absolutely right.
What I will tell you, though, about this ruling is that the Florida judge obviously made that ruling.
A three-court panel at the appellate court stay the ruling, but put in a number of the restrictions that were prior to 2000, right?
So right now, instead of this drug being able to be prescribed over the phone or in person, now a woman is required to go for three different in-person visits, which puts significant restrictions on women with regards to transportation and access because you have to go for the first appointment for the first pill; the second appointment for the second pill, that has not been banned yet; and then those are 24 to 48 hours separate.
Then on top of that, you have to go back for a third appointment to see a doctor.
So there are a lot of restrictions.
It also can only be used from seven weeks instead of the 10 that was previously allowed.
And a lot of people are saying, "Well, we in North Carolina have a 20-week abortion ban.
"So why does this apply to us?"
It's because it's federal legislation.
So we're still bound, the doctors and women in this state are still bound to, of course, follow out the federal rules.
So this will likely go through the appellate courts, probably to the Supreme Court at the end.
And the other concern about this ban is that it's also commonly used for miscarriages, and so it's gonna be really questioning whether or not women who have miscarried are gonna be able to actually have access to this drug.
- Pat, the courts are now involved and you have state legislators wanting, some of them really wanting to put a stake in the ground on this issue.
Who wins at the end of the day, the courts or state legislators?
- Well, so I don't know.
As a matter of politics, Republicans win by talking about abortion for the next two years.
At risk of being corrected by a lawyer and a senator, and I hope that you do correct me, my understanding of this case is that it's, first of all, in some level of chaos.
But my take on it is Congress delegated to the FDA the authority to decide and regulate drugs, right?
Not to judges.
And a judge has basically decided and waived the merits of a drug that's usually the FDA's job.
But I think things get more complicated there, and this is where I think it gets a little bit interesting, is that the appellate court basically said, "Okay, that drug's been around for 16 or 20 years.
"We're not gonna change that."
But just a few years ago, the FDA did change the rules by which that drug can be administered and the appellate court said, "Those rules can actually stay in effect for right now "because we don't know "that the FDA followed the right process "in changing those rules."
That seems to me to be the sort of more appropriate, and I think more interesting and compelling argument in this case.
I'm sure I got a lot of that wrong, senators.
But please jump in and correct me.
- I mean, one of the concerns that we've seen and we're gonna talk about is that the FDA has used, I mean, their fast tracked authority to deem pregnancy as an illness actually in order to make this ruling.
And in 2021, I believe, they actually permanently did away with the requirement for in-person, I guess dispensing for these abortion.
I'm not going to try and pronounce the name, but the in-person abortion pill medication.
So, I mean, there's a concern that we talk about abortion as this major healthcare topic, and that we're having this drug that's being self-administered and passed through the mail, and there are these complications, such as miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.
And how are we actually evaluating that during this time period if we're just letting this freely come around the country?
We're looking at pro-life legislation in the Senate, and this is certainly part of the package and the conversations being had about how do we actually address these medications in North Carolina.
- I think that's part of what you were saying, like Republicans don't win talking about abortion for years.
And I think what the public isn't seeing is the discussions going on in your caucus and in the House Republican caucus about where they are on any sort of increased restrictions.
And I think the abortion pill has just kind of changed the conversation a little bit because the Fed said that this is up to the states, and then now maybe it won't be, so.
- [Kelly] Yeah, Pat?
- No, I was just gonna say in my opinion, sort of the state and/or federal legislatures are the appropriate places to adjudicate these questions, right?
And that's why, in my opinion, I think the Roe v. Wade decision was proper.
But at the same time, you can't argue, in my opinion, that and also say that, well, a judge can or should say that this 20-year-old pill is also no longer legal, right?
Those are too, I think in my opinion, contradictory.
- And this is also a medication that's not only used just with we're talking about miscarriages and medical abortion.
It is used for other issues.
So if somebody has significant joint pain in their other diagnoses, they need that medication to be able to function every day.
So if you're going to ban it, and ban it at the doses that are being administered, you're actually affecting a number of individuals.
I think a little girl in a different state is talking about how she can't function without this medication.
So it's used for multiple purposes.
I would also say that it's been used, and getting back to not what AG Stein said, but specifically about the safety, is that it's been safe.
We've had this drug and it has been used for 23 years, and you have not heard any issues regarding it.
And to what Senator Sawrey said is, yes in the past it was in-person, and so you'd have to go in for the first dose, but you didn't have to go in for a second or a third dose.
It's literally putting restrictions, significant restrictions on women to get access, not only for miscarriage, but also medical abortions, when some people have to drive two, three days.
You have to take three days off of work.
82% of North Carolinians don't even get paid leave.
They don't get sick leave.
They can't take the day off.
So now someone has to choose whether they're gonna get fired from their job to go ahead and, let's say in this situation, have a miscarriage and have to go in and have that medication administered on three different occasions or two different occasions in a follow-up appointment.
- You need to consider the potential physical harm if there's a delay in getting something that you need.
- And if you can't use that, you actually have a much more invasive and riskier procedure to go ahead and use, so we're putting women at risk.
Women who want to have children in the future, you're putting them more at risk by using a medical procedure that's significantly more invasive than this medication that's been used for 23 years.
- Senator, sorry, how delicate of a discussion is this when you go home and you're talking into roles?
"I'm the senator, not my private life or my private."
When people come to you and hit you with all these what-ifs and this and that, do you have to stick to a line or is there a way to nuance in this abortion debate and still keep your constituents happy or at least the ones that voted for ya?
- The abortion debate, and I think Pat had the top, I mean, hit the nail on the head with this.
It's a nuanced debate.
I mean, it's a very difficult debate.
It's very emotional and personal to a lot of people.
You know, I'm 36 years old.
You know, generationally, I think when you look at just the polling data and the stats, you know, my peers tend to be more on the pro-choice realm of things compared to the pro-life realm, but I represent Johnston County, and I have very firm convictions in where life begins and where it goes, you know, as far as the pregnancy.
And a lotta that's been shaped by, you know, my upbringing.
A lot has been shaped by my personal experiences with my own two children.
But there's a recognition generally that, you know, we're a large state and there're 30 members in our caucus, and there there's a very diverse set of viewpoints.
I don't think it's an, and I go back to what I said earlier about doing serious policy, having serious discussions.
You know, we're carefully considering, you know, what it means to have a pro-life bill move forward so that we can get something that makes sense for what North Carolina needs, what's morally right and advances a pro-life agenda.
And this is part of it.
I mean, it's been front and center.
We're talking about the abortion pill legislation significantly because I mean, I think, and I'll go back to what you talked about with the in-person medication, you know, doing away with the visits and allowing this to be purely, you know, by mail and telehealth.
You know, we talk about the access to healthcare issues, but there's some things with ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages that you simply, you know, I don't necessarily think that you can self-diagnose, and you need that level of care, and you need somebody that's on the ground looking at you and helping to evaluate that.
- Yeah, to me, that's the key distinction.
I know we probably wanna move on really quickly.
You know, the FDA approved this medication provided you visit the doctor and you take the medication in front of a doctor and you have a follow-up visit for complications.
In 2016, the FDA changed those rules such that you don't need to do that anymore.
And that's, to me, the real controversy or question before the Fifth Circuit.
The fifth Circuit said, "Look, I don't know that the FDA followed its own rules and procedures in changing those requirements in making sure that it's safe for people to take that drug without those extra steps."
So that, to me, is the problem.
And the Fifth Circuit even said that, you know, "I think that there's a likelihood of success on the merits of that claim."
- But what I don't think has come out is that even in 2016, right, you're saying, "Okay, all of these what-ifs," right?
But no statistics have come out saying that women have actually been harmed or have had significant deaths, damage, you know, infertility based on the 2016 to now.
So yes, I'm not disagreeing with the you need to be in front of a doctor or you need to be on a telehealth visit in front of a doctor.
The doctor's not gonna be able to see an ectopic pregnancy if you're in the doctor's office.
What I'm saying is that this has been a safe drug that has been used for 23 years, and what people and at least advocates to ban it are using it seems like is, "Oh, it's not safe for women."
And I say, "Well, where are the statistics that say women have been at risk?"
- I wanna jump in real quick on that because there is federal data that's available that shows that emergency room visits are actually up 500% since some of these changes have been made with regard to these abortion bills.
I mean, there is a real safety concern here with regard to making them widely available by mail without these in-person visits.
I really think it's something that we need to take a hard look at.
And I go back to what Pat said about the process and the argument.
You know, the FDA fast tracking this approval is, I mean, it's a huge concern, and I really think it's a circumstance where you're putting politics over actual policy and sound policy and health, and, you know, it needs to be looked at by the state.
And again, it's something we're looking at, something we're gonna do something with.
- Dawn, this is a very civil disagreement between two partisans, but ordinary people will hear both sides, and they have to make a decision, and you as a reporter have to tell a story as factually as you can.
Is it possible to weigh out a case where people can go, "These are the facts, and this is the right and wrong answer when it comes to, in this case, this abortion medication"?
- I think that most people have already come to some general conclusion on where they are on the topic of abortion, and that could change by political party, by gender, by age, and your own experiences, and I don't think people are really gonna shift where they are.
So they will think about their own position and what legislation they see, what court decision they see, and they're gonna look at it through that lens.
And so you can tell the stories of the variety of everybody as far as and then the actual data, like you were saying, about citing different things somewhere in the middle there.
But it's not something that's gonna be policy only.
It's personal for everybody, and that's why it's so contentious.
- Pat, and we'll finish up with this.
When the Democratic party, you know, Twitter was on fire about Tricia Cotham going from Democratic Party to the Republican party last week.
I think her paperwork's now official.
Does that change anything in this debate?
Because there is a public perception out there or something being propagated going, "Well, because she changed teams, that could change her vote."
- Yeah, Dawn, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Representative Cotham is still signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation that would effectively codify the "Roe v. Wade" framework.
Is that right?
You know, I haven't spoken to her personally.
I would be very surprised if simply because of a party switch, she were to change what is probably a pretty sincerely held belief on that policy question.
And look, Republicans and Democrats within their own parties have very different opinions on very different subjects.
And so I don't think necessarily because more Republicans are pro-life, representative Cotham becoming a Republican means that she too is now pro-life.
- All right, let's switch gears.
Benton, coming back to you.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing North Carolina over a recently passed anti-riot legislation.
So the law will punish rioters with stiffer penalties, allow them to face treble financial damages awards against them if they cause injury or property damage and get successfully sued.
The ACLU is telling the courts, the federal courts that North Carolina's law is overly broad in defining a riot among other arguments.
And legal protests could be criminalized.
Governor Cooper kind of stayed out of this one, this year.
He'd made his point last year.
But virtually said, "What's the point?"
this year, and just left it alone.
Is this the ACLU bringing up some valid points, at least?
Or is the ACLU doing what they're supposed to do when any law that even seems to affect protest comes along?
- I think it's ACLU doing what the ACLU does.
That's their mission in their organization.
But I think it's important really to frame what this bill is.
I mean, this is a bipartisan, common sense bill, that has broad support by Republicans, and even some Democrats in both chambers.
It received Democrat votes in the Senate, or a Democrat vote in the Senate.
It received Democrat votes in the House.
It featured a Democrat co-sponsor who was from Rocky Mount.
We are not taking away anybody's right or ability by this, through this law, to exercise your First Amendment right.
What it does is it increases penalties for people that are rioting and causing property damage during protests and things like that in North Carolina.
There's an argument to be made, and I think it's a really good argument, that it actually helps people exercise those constitutional rights because it chills the agitators and the bad actors from coming in, and disrupting and causing this chaos that we saw in the past.
I am hopeful that Attorney General Stein will vigorously defend this law.
I don't know if I've seen whether any decision's been made with that regard, but.
But again, I am very confused by some of the controversy that surrounds this bill.
Something that's so widely liked.
My district statewide when it polls, and just what seems to be common sense law and order legislation that protects private property rights of business owners.
- Yeah, words matter.
And it's all in how you interpret them.
- I think, I mean, the court is just kind of the next process with things.
If there's legislation that not everyone agrees with, then the judicial branch, that's the whole point of these different branches interacting.
So, I think litigation is the next step for what could potentially happen with what passed.
If it goes anywhere, we'll see.
But I think that, Pat, you made this point on a State Lines episode, maybe a month or so ago, where you said it's a different time than when the bill came out.
As far as like where support was when that was in the wake of George Floyd protests.
And a lot of it was driven by Moore and what his experience in Raleigh and his apartment there.
Versus where things are now and the support.
It was, I think, at least one Democrat voted with it.
And it's just the, it's timing too.
It's not just what's in the language of the bill.
- Sydney, on a piece of legislation, if a lawmaker has a negative experience, it does affect what they think the state needs in terms of a state law.
So is it fair to have had a run-in years ago and said, oh my goodness, I'm fearful, I'm in an apartment downtown.
Look at all this going on.
And then come out with a state law three, four years later that says, we can correct this, and keep protests peaceful.
- I think that's a valid point if it wasn't overly broad.
So, I'll give you an example.
Yes, it was bipartisan in that there was one Democrat, right, or two.
I don't think that's a bipartisan, yes by definition, in an overly broad definition, that is of course bipartisan.
It is not overwhelmingly bipartisan like the vast majority of legislation that we pass.
What I would say, is that increasing penalties, we know historically, that it does not deter people from committing crimes.
So capital punishment, for instance, the death penalty, has not deterred people from continuing to murder individuals.
Even when you look at states that have the death penalty and don't have the death penalty, murder's still the exact same.
It's not a deterrent.
I would also contend, and tell you all, that based on this last, the pistol permit repeal, we obviously don't communicate very well with the public.
I don't think the vast majority of people say, oh wait, if I go out there, then I'm gonna be in a position in which I'm gonna have treble damages.
I don't think that that's actually a good deterrent.
What I would also say is that my colleague, when we were in judiciary together within our story, asked a very valid question.
Which it goes to the overly broad part that the ACLU is talking about.
And that is this, if you define it, which is saying a public disturbance involving three or more people who assemble, and cause injury, or there is a clear and present danger.
That means that it's not just for riots, it's not just for protests, it is actually for any situation.
So when UNC or Duke win the national championship, and they go on 9th Street, or they go on Franklin Street, and they continue to, of course, party, then are we-- - Or burn the dorm furniture out in front because they won the national championship.
- Or they burn the dorm furniture, or they set a car on fire.
Are we talking about that that is now defined as a riot and we're gonna start locking up kids at UNC and Duke?
I don't think that the bill sponsor, the bill sponsor said that is not the intention, but that's the point.
It is overly broad.
Is it for rioting or protesting?
Is it for anyone?
'Cause kids egging your house can technically be rioting if they're actually five of 'em.
- We've got 15 seconds, and we've gotta let the folks have their TV station back.
- Yeah, these questions, I guess, will be sorted out by the courts.
I mean, the bill has gone through, I think, a three year process now.
Presumably the types of policy questions have been discussed at length and decided upon.
And now it will be up to the courts to determine whether the ACLU has a point.
- And with that, we'll wrap it up.
Thank you for joining us.
Thank you panelists for coming on.
And welcome to television, Senator Sawrey.
Good to have you, hope you'll come back on.
Email us firstname.lastname@example.org.
We'd love to hear your thoughts about the issues.
I'm Kelly McCullen.
Thank you for watching.
We'll see you next time.
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