Senate Republicans hope to pass a bill banning abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy before lawmakers break for their summer recess – adding South Carolina to a growing list of states moving to pass abortion restrictions.
But Democratic opponents say the proposal could have another consequence, dooming a long list of other state priorities – including fixing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges – as the legislative session barrels toward its June 4 deadline for passing bills.
Killing the roads bill and a proposal to borrow millions for improvements for colleges, tech schools and armories could be the goal of some senators who favor the abortion restrictions, some lawmakers say.
Republican senators want to fast-track the abortion bill, making it their next top priority, said state Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, who played a role in moving the bill into one of three priority spots on the Senate’s calendar, essentially guaranteeing it will be debated.
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Cromer and other Republicans say there still is enough time left to handle the abortion bill and other top legislative priorities, including roads.
The key to doing all that, Cromer and others say, is convincing Democrats not to filibuster the abortion bill.
But quick passage is unlikely.
"There are too many strongly held opinions on this to think it will go away without a fight,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
Hutto warned fellow senators last Thursday that forcing a debate on the abortion bill, called the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Act,” could lead to a standoff that prevents the Senate from getting any other work done before its summer break.
A filibuster of the abortion bill “is expected,” said Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston. “Amendments are already being prepared. Arguments are being fine-tuned.”
Kimpson added, “I have some serious concerns about us invading on the contours of Roe v. Wade,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that guarantees access to abortion through 24 weeks of pregnancy.
‘An amendment they can live with’
Sponsored by state Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, the 20-week abortion ban passed the House 80-27 in February, the second year the bill has been introduced in the Legislature.
In addition to banning abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy, the bill also would require physicians who perform abortions to save the mother’s life to report data to the state, including the age of the woman and the method of abortion. Doctors performing those abortions would be required to choose a method that gives the fetus the best chance of surviving the procedure.
Nanney’s bill, similar to several bills moving through state legislatures around the country, includes an exception to permit abortions at 20 weeks to save the life of the mother.
A Senate committee amended the bill to allow other exceptions — for rape, incest and severe fetal anomalies that would prevent the child from living after birth.
Cromer and other GOP leaders hope adding those exceptions could win enough support from socially conservative Democrats — or, at least, cool hardline opponents — to allow the bill to pass this year.
“We could have a long, protracted debate on a filibuster, (but) if (opponents of the bill) can get an amendment that they can live with,” the bill could pass, Cromer said.
To pass the abortion restrictions, “we’re going to have to have the amendments on the bill,” added state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, who favors the bill.
Shealy added the issue will not rest in South Carolina until the Legislature passes restrictions, satisfying anti-abortion advocates who are pushing the bill.
‘Greater priority than roads’
While exceptions to the restrictions likely would make the bill easier to swallow for more socially conservative Democrats, some pro-choice lawmakers said they still will oppose the bill.
Kimpson said if the state passes a law banning abortion at 20 weeks, those restrictions likely would face a court challenge that would cost South Carolina money.
Abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy are “rare,” Kimpson added.
Opponents say the bill could have a devastating effect on the small number of women who seek elective abortions in South Carolina at 20 weeks of pregnancy, the point at which some fetal anomalies first are detected.
Between 2008 and 2013, only 165 Palmetto State women had abortions between 20 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. It’s “not an issue that merits our attention given other priorities of the state,” Kimpson said.
But for some Republicans, “this bill that restricts women’s rights takes a greater priority than the roads bill,” said Democratic state Sen. Joel Lourie of Richland County. “Quite honestly, I find that very disturbing.”
Both sides want abortion debate
Democrats are not the only ones who could stall the legislative process when the abortion bill hits the Senate floor, expected within the next two weeks.
Republican Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, who annually introduces legislation aimed at restricting access to abortion and giving legal rights to unborn fetuses, said he does not agree with the exceptions added to House bill.
For example, if a doctor determines a fetus has a fatal abnormality and “is wrong, you’ve ended a life,” he said.
One of the senators who pushed to make the abortion-restriction legislation a Senate priority, Bright said he has his own amendments to the legislation that he plans to offer, including one to require physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals.
That proposal mirrors efforts in other states aimed at shuttering abortion clinics.
Bright said his support of the abortion bill had nothing to do with his opposition to other proposals that would raise taxes to pay for road maintenance, or improve buildings at colleges and universities.
But, Bright said on the Senate floor Wednesday, sometimes letting the clock run out is a strategy in itself. “Sometimes you get things done by not getting things done.”
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Abortions in South Carolina
S.C. abortions from 20 to 24 weeks of pregnancy, during 2008-2013
2008 – 10
2009 – 24
2010 – 37
2011 – 31
2012 – 25
2013 – 38
Cost of the ‘Pain Capable Unborn Child Act’
$50,000: One-time cost of updating the state health agency’s database to capture physicians’ reports about the abortions that they perform
$75,000: Annual cost of hiring about 1.4 full-time employees to run the program and manage the physician reports
SOURCES: S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office