A fight over tightening South Carolina's abortion laws is about to rage on the state Senate floor, prompting a Democratic filibuster that could kill a number of other notable bills.
After months of waiting, the Republican-majority Senate voted last Thursday to begin debate on a proposal to outlaw "dismemberment" abortions. In those rare procedures, typically reserved for pregnancies with defective fetuses or serious medical complications, the physician uses forceps to pull apart the unborn fetus before removing it in pieces.
Senate Democrats promptly threatened to filibuster the bill for the next six legislative days until the General Assembly adjourns on May 10, the minority party's only option to keep the proposal from becoming state law.
Unless Republicans can muster the three-fifths majority needed to end the filibuster, the vote-stalling strategy likely will keep several other important bills from passing this year, including a handful addressing South Carolina's nuclear fiasco.
"If this is how we want to end this session, this is how we'll end this session," state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, warned from the Senate floor Thursday. "I submit to you that there are a lot of other important matters that face this state."
The abortion debate, set to begin Tuesday, follows several other failed efforts this year to curtail abortions in South Carolina.
▪ In February, a Senate committee narrowly approved the "Personhood Act," a bill that would extend legal rights to a fertilized egg at conception, effectively outlawing all abortion in South Carolina. But facing a Democratic filibuster and legal concerns, that bill has stalled on the Senate floor.
▪ Earlier this month, Senate Republicans tried and failed to strip public money from abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, from the state budget, by rejecting federal money that pays for testing for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and other "family planning" services at those clinics.
▪ The full Senate also voted down another GOP proposal to block the state health plan from covering abortions for victims of rape or incest.
This time, the debate will center on a medical procedure called dilation and evacuation — used in 22 of the 5,736 abortions performed in South Carolina in 2016. The procedure is used for pregnancies after the first trimester, typically for mothers who want the child but then learn their pregnancies are complicated by a severe medical condition.
Senate Transportation Committee chairman Larry Grooms, the Berkeley Republican who led the push to start debate on the "dismemberment" ban, said ripping unborn children apart is dehumanizing and shouldn't be tolerated.
"We treat animals in the slaughterhouses better than we treat unborn children," Grooms said.
Democrats, women's rights groups and doctors' associations have countered that dilation and evacuation, a 30-minute procedure, is the safest way to abort a fetus in medical emergencies. The other option, they say is to induce labor — a painful, sometimes days-long method that exposes the pregnant woman to significant health risks.
"In my opinion, it's just cruel," said Amy Crockett, vice chairwoman of the S.C. chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said of the proposed ban. “If you have a pregnancy that’s complicated by a lethal fetal anomaly, I just don’t think it’s really fair to ask women to take that risk with their own health to continue the pregnancy, especially when they have other children at home and other family members that rely on them.”
The Women's Rights and Empowerment Network's S.C. chapter says it opposes the ban because it denies doctors the ability "to give the best standard of care for women," according to Ashley Crary Lidow, associate director of policy and government relations. "It’s very disappointing that this is what the Legislature is spending time on when there are so many other issues it needs to address.”
State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, told the Senate Thursday most of its members didn't understand the bill, which she said would criminalize the safest method of abortion for fetuses that likely would not survive after birth. "A whole part of this is, the child is not a viable fetus in the first place," she said.
Pro-life senators and groups are not sold.
While some oppose all abortions, they say problematic pregnancies are no excuse to dismember an unborn child.
“So the Democrats believe in taking disabled babies and tearing their arms and legs off? Disemboweling them? Treating them like trash? That's what the Democrats believe in?" said Holly Gatling, director of S.C. Citizens for Life, which has made the "dismemberment" ban its top legislative priority for the year. "I don’t buy their argument at all. I don’t think this is the way you treat any baby.”
The bill passed the House 83-17 but won't enjoy the same overwhelming support in the Senate.
Grooms told The State he thinks he narrowly has enough votes to end a Democratic filibuster after the required two days. But he fears he may lose votes if the bill is amended. Some Republicans may try to insert the Personhood Act's language to make it a more expansive abortion ban, threatening the bill's passage, Grooms said.
“I’m in favor of Personhood, but I’m also in favor of this bill passing," Grooms said. "I am not in favor of going home with nothing.”
Of the eight states that have adopted similar laws, six are tied up in litigation. But pro-life groups say the U.S. Supreme Court, ultimately, will side with abortion opponents on the "dismemberment" issue.