RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Abortion rights advocates in North Carolina say they are in the dark about new rules required by a year-old law that they fear could effectively shut down many of the state's clinics.
Broadly speaking, the law requires that clinics be regulated in the same way as outpatient surgical centers. But exactly how those rules will take shape and what the state's 15 abortion clinics will need to do to comply remain unknown. The state's health department says it is committed to maintaining access to the procedure and is still drafting the rules.
There is no deadline for drafting the rules.
"Everybody is waiting to see what they're going to do," said Paige Johnson, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood. "The question is, what will DHHS come up with? Will these be regulations based in women's health ... or will these regulations we politically motivated? There are lots of standards that are possible out there."
Johnson said she was encouraged, however, because the rules are being drafted by health officials and not politicians.
The only clinic in the state that met the standards of an outpatient surgical center is no longer providing abortions. The clinic had its license suspended temporarily last summer after state regulators found it violated health and safety rules that put patients at risk. The remaining facilities will likely need to make changes.
Abortion rights supporters worried about access were furious as lawmakers considered the changes last year, as the new requirements were tucked into a bill dealing primarily with motorcycle safety.
Tighter laws governing abortion clinics and the doctors who practice at them have been passed across the South recently. In Mississippi, for example, a law was passed requiring that doctors at clinics have privileges to admit patients to local hospitals. Opponents of the law say it could force the state's lone clinic to close because its doctors typically travel from out of state and don't have ties to local hospitals. Gov. Phil Bryant bluntly said he signed the law in 2012 with the aim of ending abortion in the state.
In North Carolina, abortion rights supporters have taken aim at state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who helped push the law through the legislature and is now trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. Planned Parenthood Votes, the group's federal political nonprofit, is hosting a "Too Far Tillis" rally Thursday night to mark the one-year anniversary of the law and tell people not to vote for him.
The state Department of Health and Human Services declined an interview request but said in an emailed statement that it is following normal rulemaking procedures in revising clinic rules.
"We are fully committed to complying with (the law) in that any revised regulations will address patient safety and privacy without unduly restricting access," the statement said.
A draft of the rules will be released before they are finalized so that the public can offer feedback, DHHS spokeswoman Kirsti Clifford said.
The health department did meet an April 1 deadline for telling lawmakers what resources they needed to enforce the new rules. In its report, the agency said it needed an additional $900,000 to cover 10 new employees. Those workers are needed to survey the clinics annually and respond to complaints, the agency said.
Abortion clinics are inspected about every three to five years under existing regulations put in place in the mid-1990s, according to the health agency. There are currently 10 state government inspectors statewide to scrutinize clinics, hospice care, psychiatric hospitals, home health care agencies and other medical facilities.
However, even lawmakers haven't been updated on the status of the new rules. Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, who ushered the bill through the Senate, said he has heard nothing from the agency but plans to follow up soon.
"The fact they haven't made much progress is a concern to the legislature," he said.