Politics & Government

Why SC women seeking abortions could face more obstacles

rthompson@thestate.com

S.C. women could face more obstacles to getting an abortion if legislators restrict what abortion-rights advocates say is the safest and most common form of abortion in the second trimester.

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Lin Bennett, R-Charleston, would make it a felony to perform a “dismemberment abortion” that “kills an unborn child” unless the procedure is necessary to prevent “serious health risk” to the pregnant woman.

Doctors would face a fine of $10,000 or two years in prison, or both, if convicted of breaking the law.

The bill, which passed the GOP-controlled S.C. House last year with only 17 votes against it, will get its first hearing Thursday in the Republican-majority state Senate.

Physicians opposed to the bill say it effectively would ban a procedure called dilation and evacuation, the most common and safest method of terminating a pregnancy in the second trimester.

Used in 22 of the 5,736 abortions performed in South Carolina in 2016 – less than a half of 1 percent – the procedure dilates the woman’s cervix so a physician can remove the fetus from the uterus using forceps or other tools.

Bennett, the bill’s sponsor, said Wednesday her bill would not stop physicians from performing the procedure. It would, however, require doctors to kill the fetus before it is removed, she said.

“All this bill does is require them to euthanize the baby before they rip it apart in the mother’s womb,” Bennett said.

“I don’t like that we even do this procedure,” the Charleston Republican said. “But if we can at least make it more humane, less painful, to the unborn child ... I want to remove as much pain as I possibly can.”

The bill is the latest in a series of efforts, driven by Republicans and supported by some Democrats, to restrict abortion in South Carolina.

In 2016, the state adopted a law banning abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later. Some physicians objected to that law, saying it injected politics in the exam room, where doctors and patients often are navigating tragic circumstances when wanted pregnancies go wrong.

Critics have said the 20-week ban and Bennett’s proposal are unconstitutional.

Similar bans on “dismemberment” abortions in Texas and other states have been struck down by courts. Noting “dismemberment” is not a medical term, a U.S. district judge struck down the Texas law saying it put an unnecessary burden on women.

Driving the 20-week abortion ban and Bennett’s “dismemberment abortion” bill is the belief that fetuses can feel earlier than thought previously in pregnancy, a claim disputed in the medical community.

Bennett’s bill would prevent doctors from giving patients the safest and best treatment, said Amy Crockett, a maternal fetal medicine doctor in Greenville and the vice chair of the S.C. chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Crockett said the women who seek second-trimester abortions often do so because the fetus has a severe anomaly or the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

Bennett’s bill would force those women to undergo an additional, invasive, unnecessary medical procedure prior to an abortion to stop the fetus’ heart, Crockett said. “It’s (the bill is) not really about safety for the woman or the patient.”

Under the bill, the father, if married to the woman getting an abortion, or the maternal parents of the woman, if she is under 18, also could take legal action against a physician who performs an illegal abortion.

The woman would be protected from prosecution.

“I wish we had better access to contraception so we had fewer unwanted pregnancies,” Crockett said, adding, “There are a lot of other ways we can reduce the incidents of abortion without threatening doctors and criminalizing medical practices.”

Abortions in South Carolina

In 2016, there were 5,736 abortions performed in South Carolina. A look at those abortions, by the numbers:

By gestational age, or length of pregnancy

5,705 – abortions performed at 13 weeks gestation or less

18 – performed from 14 to 19 weeks

13 – performed from 20 to 23 weeks

None – performed at 24 or more weeks

By abortion procedure

2,959 – Pharmacological, meaning the pregnant woman took medicine to terminate the pregnancy

2,752 – Curettage, a procedure that uses suction to remove the fetus from the uterus

22 – Dilation and evacuation, a procedure that uses forceps or other tools to remove the fetus from the uterus

Less than 5 – Other procedure (for example, hysterectomy)

SOURCE: The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control

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