North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein will not defend the state's 20-week abortion ban, which is currently blocked by an injunction in the case of Bryant v. Woodall.
The Democrat attorney general released a two-paragraph statement on Thursday announcing he will not seek to lift the injunction in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision last month overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, as legislative leaders have requested.
"The Department of Justice will not take action that would restrict women's ability to make their own reproductive health care decisions," Stein said. "Protecting that ability is more important than ever, as states across the nation are banning abortions in all instances, including rape and incest."
Stein's refusal to defend the state's ban on abortion after 20 weeks comes after North Carolina House Speaker Timothy Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, sent the attorney general a joint letter urging him to act following the Supreme Court decision.
"With the legal underpinnings of the Bryant court's injunction now erased, we respectfully call on you and the Department of Justice to take all necessary legal action to lift the injunction currently barring the full enforcement of the state's abortion restrictions," they wrote.
The lawmakers warned that if Stein refuses, they "stand ready to take the necessary steps to restore North Carolina's abortion laws to where they were before Bryant stuck them down."
"North Carolinians can also expect pro-life protections to be a top priority of the legislature when we return to our normal legislative session in January," Moore said.
North Carolina Republicans hope to secure a supermajority in November, which would allow them to override gubernatorial vetoes.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June clarified that lawmakers can intervene in cases to defend state law.
The nation's highest court ruled 8-1 to allow Berger and Moore to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the North Carolina NAACP challenging the state's 2018 voter identification law because Stein had previously opposed voter ID laws.
"The reasons why a state might choose to proceed this way (with both lawmakers and attorney general defending the case) are understandable enough," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. "Sometimes leaders in different branches of government may see the state's interests at stake in litigation differently. Some states may judge that important public perspectives would be lost without a mechanism allowing multiple officials to respond.
"It seems North Carolina has some experience with just these sorts of issues. More than once a North Carolina attorney general has opposed laws enacted by the General Assembly and declined to defend them fully in federal litigation."
Stein's announcement Thursday aligns with Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper's pledge to do whatever he can to oppose efforts by the General Assembly to protect the unborn. Cooper issued Executive Order 263 on July 7 directing cabinet agencies under his authority to take several steps to preserve abortion access in North Carolina, including refusing to aid civil or criminal investigations, refusing to extradite those charged with violations in other states, allowing employees to avoid travel to states with abortion bans, and ensuring access to abortion clinics.
"For now, it's up to the states to determine whether women get reproductive health care, and in North Carolina they still can, thanks to my veto and enough legislative votes to sustain it," Cooper said. "I am determined to keep it that way and people need to know that their votes in state legislative races this November will determine the fate of women's health and freedom in our state."