RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a measure Thursday written by Republicans and backed by social conservatives that addresses a doctor's responsibilities if a later-term abortion results in an infant born alive.
Cooper announced his decision two days after the General Assembly sent him a measure telling health care practitioners to grant those newborns the same protections as other patients. Those who don't could face a felony and active prison time, along with fines and potential civil damages.
Cooper's veto message echoed some comments of abortion-rights supporters opposed to the "born-alive" measure. They also said in committees and floor debate that the legislation was designed to intimidate women and physicians and ultimately chip away at the constitutionally-protected right to an abortion.
"Laws already protect newborn babies and this bill is an unnecessary interference between doctors and their patients," Cooper wrote. "This needless legislation would criminalize doctors and other health care providers for a practice that simply does not exist."
It's unclear if Republicans holding House and Senate majorities can override Cooper's veto — his first since Democrats made enough seat gains in November to eliminate the GOP's veto-proof control.
Two Senate Democrats and four House Democrats joined all Republicans in voting for the measure earlier this week. Bill supporters likely would need another few House Democrats to join them to complete an override of the veto.
"This bill really transcends the traditional Republican-Democrat divide," said Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, who expected an override vote in his chamber. He described opposition to the bill as support for "ending a child's life after that child has been born."
Anti-abortion groups, who argue the "Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act" would protect children born alive after botched abortions and who otherwise would be left to die, blasted Cooper's decision. The state's murder statutes also would be expanded in the measure to apply to an "intentional, overt act" after a child is born alive.
"Shame on Gov. Cooper for siding with extremists against innocent children and the will of his constituents," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the national Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion candidates. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican planning a run to unseat Cooper in 2020, also lamented the veto.
Democrats speaking against the bill say North Carolina already has laws on the books against infanticide, doctors already are regulated by medical boards and physicians aren't neglecting these newborns. Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor in 2020 and a vocal opponent of the measure, thanked Cooper for the veto.
The bill's supporters have provided written testimony of adults who saw or survived botched abortions. How often situations occur where doctors have neglected these live infants are unclear.
The North Carolina Values Coalition said five states have reported at least 25 children were born alive during attempted abortions in 2017. North Carolina keeps no such statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 140 infant deaths involved induced terminations nationwide from 2003 to 2014. It hasn't specified what level of care those newborns received.
The bill reflects a recent uptick in abortion legislation from both sides of the issue in the states. A Texas "born-alive" bill is close to reaching GOP Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. North Carolina bill supporters say they were encouraged to pass their measure after comments earlier this year by Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in favor of legislation that would have eased restrictions on late-term abortions.
North Carolina Republicans have passed abortion restrictions this decade. But a North Carolina law adjusted in 2015 to limit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy to only those during a medical emergency was struck down recently by a federal judge. The decision's enforcement has been delayed for now.
Cooper vetoed 28 bills in his first two years in office — more than any governor in a four-year term. Republicans overrode 23 of them.