Politics & Government

Plan to outlaw all abortions in South Carolina gets OK from Senate panel

A Republican proposal that, effectively, would ban all abortions in South Carolina is headed to the full Senate for a vote despite concerns it could criminalize fertility treatment and some types of birth control, and ban abortions performed to save the mother’s life.

A state Senate committee OK’d the proposal Tuesday after two hours of debate, voting 12-9 along party lines to extend legal rights to fertilized eggs at the moment of conception.

One Republican on the panel did not vote on the proposal, saying it was unconstitutional. However, advocates see the proposal as a way, possibly, to overturn the 1972 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The proposal, which must pass the full Senate and House, has been praised by abortion opponents and condemned by medical and women’s rights groups.

The “Personhood Act” that GOP senators approved Tuesday was sponsored by Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant – when he still was a state senator – and endorsed by Gov. Henry McMaster. Both are seeking the Republican nomination for governor in June’s GOP primary, where the abortion issue is a key one to Republican voters.

This year, S.C. lawmakers also are considering a bill that would make it a crime to perform “dismemberment” procedures, which doctors consider the safest method of second-trimester abortions. In 2016, the state banned abortions occurring 20 weeks after conception.

The Personhood Act would outlaw most, if not all, of the nearly 6,000 abortions performed in South Carolina each year. Just two other states – Kansas and Missouri – have a personhood law. But in both states, that law is expressly subject to the U.S. Constitution.

Its champion in the Senate, Richard Cash, R-Anderson, says the proposal is intended to spark a court case that could be used to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman’s right to have an abortion under the 14th Amendment.

“We are trying to challenge the Supreme Court on their fundamental error that a human being is not a person,” Cash said. “A human being is a person.”

Senate Democrats on Tuesday complained the proposal, even after a revision Tuesday, leaves too many questions unanswered.

“I don’t think the authors of this bill and the authors of this amendment have considered the consequences,” said state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter. “We need to do our job here. Our job is to get out as good of legislation as we can … before we get it on the floor for debate.”

Democrats relayed concerns from fertility specialists who said they don’t want to be charged with murder for disposing of any fertilized eggs that aren’t used during in-vitro fertilization.

Cash replied the bill explicitly does not outlaw in-vitro fertilization. But, the Anderson Republican added, fertilization clinics “should not be allowed to destroy the eggs.”

Opponents also worry the Personhood Act could target doctors who perform abortions in medical emergencies that threaten the mother’s life. An amendment to Cash’s bill states that a doctor cannot be charged for the accidental or unintentional death of an unborn child if that doctor is making “reasonable medical efforts” to save both the mother and child during a medical emergency.

Democrats also weren’t happy that the bill makes no exception for abortion in cases of rape or incest.

Cash didn’t back down after state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, offered a hypothetical situation involving a 11-year-old girl.

“If a child is raped, yes, that is a horrible act,” Cash said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. You cannot erase the rape by killing the child. The child is an innocent person.”

“Have you ever been raped?” state Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, asked, starting a line of questioning that Cash refused to answer. “Have you ever been pregnant?”

Cash said the bill is not intended to outlaw birth control but said the bill doesn’t expressly state that intention because “birth control pills, the way that they are formulated, have and could change over time.”

The bill faces heavy opposition from Senate Democrats, who can use the chamber’s rules to hold it up. An earlier version of the bill died on the Senate floor in 2016.

State Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, abstained from voting, saying she thinks the bill is unconstitutional but didn’t want to vote against a pro-life proposal.

After the vote, Gov. McMaster praised the committee’s decision.

“I believe that human life begins at conception, and I believe the people of South Carolina deserve for their laws to reflect the values they hold dear,” the Richland Republican said in a statement. “I applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision to move this important legislation forward and ask that the Senate pass it without delay.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks