Politics & Government

EXCLUSIVE: Most in SC favor legal abortion but with limits

While three out of four South Carolinians think abortion should be legal, most would limit it to a few circumstances, according to a new Winthrop Poll.

The majority of South Carolinians agree abortion should be legal when the mother’s life or health is at risk, or if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape. But they think abortion should be illegal in cases where the baby is physically or mentally impaired, or when the mother or family cannot afford to raise the child.

Views on whether abortion should be banned after 20 weeks of pregnancy — except when the mother’s health is threatened — are more at odds, according to the poll.

Current law bans abortions after 24 weeks. But a proposal in the Legislature would ban abortions starting at 20 weeks.

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Forty-six percent of South Carolinians favor banning abortion after 20 weeks with an exception for the mother’s health, while 43 percent oppose that idea. The difference, Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon said, falls within the poll’s 3.3 percentage-point margin of error, making it a “statistical dead heat.”

Among self-identified registered voters, supporters of an abortion ban after 20 weeks edged opponents by 47 percent to 41 percent.

The Winthrop Poll, which interviewed 877 S.C. adults from April 6-13, tests public views on abortion as lawmakers consider whether to pass a bill that would ban abortions after 19 weeks, except when the mother’s life or health is at serious risk.

The poll’s results show just how complex the abortion issue is and how most people have strong opinions on it, Winthrop’s Huffmon said.

State Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, introduced the Pain Capable Unborn Child Act, which passed the S.C. House and now is before a state Senate committee. Nanney said the poll results reflect the support that she hears for her bill, which would ban abortions in South Carolina at 20 weeks and later, providing an exception for the life of the mother.

At 20 weeks, Nanney said, the fetus can feel pain — a point that is disputed in the medical community.

“The public opinion reflects what we are trying to do,” Nanney said. “Most people disagree with abortion and only in rare circumstances would even consider it.”

But Melissa Reed, vice president for public affairs for Planned Parenthood Health Systems, said the poll findings show the public breaking with Nanney’s bills, which “has no exception for rape or incest.”

“What this does show is current elected officials, who are pushing these extreme bills, are not in step with a majority of South Carolinians’ views,” Reed said of the poll.

Legal, but limited, abortions

Three out of four S.C. adults support legal abortion, with 17 percent approving under any circumstance, 13 percent approving under most, and 45 percent approving only in a few circumstances, according to the poll’s questions on the issues, asked exclusively for The State.

Seventy-four percent said abortion should be legal when the mother’s life is at risk. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed also support legal abortions when the mother’s health is at risk and 65 percent in cases of rape or incest.

But 68 percent of those surveyed said abortions should be illegal if the only factor is whether the mother or family can afford to raise the child. When the baby is in danger of mental or physical impairment, about 53 percent said abortion should be illegal.

One in five adults surveyed said they oppose abortion in all circumstances.

Toward banning abortion

Reproductive rights activists say bills, like Nanney’s, are aimed a chipping away at abortion rights with the ultimate goal of banning abortion altogether.

Three bills in the state Senate have received hearings recently that would expand the rights of the unborn.

One, sponsored by state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, would define an “unborn child” as starting at conception and going until birth. Two other bills, sponsored by state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, would extend constitutional rights to human embryos at fertilization, effectively banning abortion.

Huffmon, the Winthrop Poll director, said South Carolinians, who mostly approve of some form of legal abortion, likely would be against bills that aim at giving fetuses constitutional protections because those bills would outlaw abortions with no exceptions.

Nanney said she “would like to ban them all, but I realize that is not something we can do right now. Obviously, the life of the mother is always an issue.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision says states must allow legal abortions up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy, the length of gestation until a fetus is considered viable, or able to live outside the womb. States can ban abortion after 24 weeks if they provide an exception for the woman’s health and life.

State legislation that bans abortions before the 25th week, including Nanney’s proposed ban between weeks 20 and 24, likely would prompt legal challenges that could force the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit its 40-year-old Roe ruling, abortion opponents say.

A narrow target

Nanney’s bill provides a narrow exception for abortions after 19 weeks, including if the mother is in danger of death or at risk of “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, not including psychological or emotional conditions.”

But Nanney’s bill does not include exceptions for rape or incest. The Greenville Republican said including provisions for those exceptions is unnecessary because victims of rape or incest would not wait until the 20th week of pregnancy to have an abortion.

Abortion rights advocates say Nanney’s bill is targeting a problem that is being misrepresented.

The proposal would impact a narrow swath of women, mostly those who have desired pregnancies that go terribly wrong, said Reed of Planned Parenthood. “A majority of women who have abortions after 20 weeks do so because their life or health is in danger, or there is a severe fetal abnormality.”

An example, Reed said, is a fetus developing without a brain who has no chance of surviving.

Abortions after 20 weeks also are rare.

From 2008-12, 127 abortions were performed in S.C. between 20 and 24 weeks of pregnancy, with a low of 10 in 2008 and a high of 37 in 2010, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

That number represents less than a half a percent of the 33,025 abortions performed in South Carolina from 2008-12 — 99 percent of which were performed before the 14th week of pregnancy.

“Most people agree that these are private, complex medical decisions made between women and their doctors, and that politicians should not be making those decisions for them,” Reed said.

But Rep. Nanney said a fetus that develops without a brain still is alive, and should be born and allowed to die a natural death.

“Are we not humane enough to still take care of and protect those children? That is still a life.”

S.C. and abortion

The Winthrop Poll interviewed 877 S.C. adults from April 6-13. The results are broken down by all respondents and self-identifying registered voters.

Asked whether they favor or oppose limiting abortion to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy in the absence of health issues?

All Registered voters

Asked if abortion should be legal under any, most or only a few circumstances or not at all:

All Registered voters

Asked whether abortion should be legal or illegal under the following circumstances: