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Pro-Life Brawl 

Behind the scenes wrangling between Cox and James

A behind-the-scenes battle over abortion between Republican county commissioners reached a boiling point last weekend. At issue isn't the pros and cons of abortion, but rather how to ban them at Carolinas Medical Center (CMC), which gets more than $30 million a year from Mecklenburg County.

At the center of the fracas are County Commissioner Bill James and County Commission Chairman Tom Cox, two self-described pro-life Republicans who disagree on how to address the situation. The brawl started last week, when James decided to take matters into his own hands by putting an item on the June 15 county agenda that would force commissioners to vote on barring CMC from performing abortions on site. Because the county gives CMC funding, a county attorney ruled last week, the county can put restrictions on the hospital. If the hospital chooses to reject those restrictions, it would lose the funding.

Last week, Cox asked James to yank the controversial item from the agenda. In return, James said, Cox agreed to meet with CMC execs in July and ask them to bar abortions at the hospital and its satellite facilities.

In an interview with Creative Loafing on Friday, Cox said he never made a deal with James, but said that he "might" schedule a meeting with CMC officials later this summer. When asked whether he planned to ask CMC to halt abortions, Cox refused to comment further.

"I'm not going to telegraph that in the newspaper," Cox said.

Cox said he asked James to pull the agenda item because he didn't want abortion protesters with posters of dead babies crowding the June 15 meeting, when the county is supposed to make budget decisions. But Cox said he and James never made a deal that Cox would put the screws to CMC behind the scenes in exchange for James agreeing not to force a vote.

James says the two did have a deal, and if Cox goes back on it and doesn't meet with CMC by the end of July, he'll force a vote this summer.

"If there are 50 people there with pictures of dead babies, he can deal with it," James said.

The two traded barbs in a series of emails over the weekend after CL asked Cox whether he'd made a deal with James.

The advantage of dealing with things behind the scenes is that it would keep Republicans, and in particular Cox, who has tried to build relationships across the political spectrum, from having to take a public stand on what would be a very controversial issue, says James. That was fine with him, James said, as long as the issue of abortions at CMC was dealt with.

"I think Tom wants to work it out the Charlotte way," James said. "The Charlotte way is to kind of not do it really in public. My point is that the abortions going on there are the most cynical and crass of all abortions . . .done solely for the convenience of the woman."

On Monday, after a weekend of sniping over email by the two, Cox left CL a voicemail saying James should go ahead and put the issue to a vote.

"He might as well put the item on the agenda and have an up and down vote," Cox said. "There was a suggestion that the best way to handle it might be quiet diplomacy. But now there is no agreement."

The whole thing started last week, after the Republican majority on the county commission voted to ask for a legal opinion on whether the abortions being performed at CMC were illegal. According to official hospital policy, CMC staff is discouraged from performing elective abortions on site. Elective abortions are those in which the mother chooses to end the pregnancy for personal, rather than health reasons.

According to CMC, between mid-2001 and mid-2003, 101 elective abortions were performed in its county facilities. All the procedures were performed by private physicians with hospital privileges. None were performed by CMC staff. When patients seeking abortions show up at CMC, the hospital refers them to one of three local agencies, including Planned Parenthood. In some cases, private physicians then schedule the procedures at CMC.

A 1981 court ruling called Stam v. State of North Carolina bars counties from funding medically unnecessary abortions for the indigent because they lack authority from the state to do so. Last week, Deputy County Attorney Sandra Bisanar sent an opinion memo to commissioners stating that she didn't believe that that was what was going on at CMC. The abortions performed at CMC aren't illegal, she said, since county funds aren't used to pay for them.

"Patients or third party payers are responsible for paying the charges," Bisanar wrote in her memo.

It is unclear whether CMC handles the billing or profits from the procedures. Neither CMC nor Planned Parenthood returned CL's calls for comment.

In an April memo to James, Carolinas HealthCare System Administrative Service Executive Vice President Greg Gombar wrote that the hospital has no plans to pursue the abortion issue unless the commission forces it to. But if the county mandated changes in CMC's abortion policy as a condition of future funding, Gombar wrote, the board of Carolinas HealthCare System, CMC's parent agency, would be "faced with deciding between compliance and significant reduction of services in the affected areas."

Much of the funding the county gives the hospital every year pays for services for the poor.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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