Republicans rejoiced and Democrats grimaced Thursday over the S.C. Senate's vote late Wednesday night to give preliminary approval to a bill that would outlaw virtually every abortion in South Carolina.
As the debate before a final vote began Thursday, the bill’s odds of passing the Senate remained unclear.
Either way, House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, told The State he would push the House to reject the ban, insisting instead on an earlier version of the bill — which the House already has passed — that banned only “dismemberment” abortions, a procedure used to terminate 22 S.C. pregnancies in 2016.
Simrill called the amendment expanding the “dismemberment” ban to an abortion ban a "diversion from the real issue of protecting unborn children from a barbaric procedure that allows for dismemberment in the womb."
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"Unless Roe v. Wade is overturned,” Simrill said, “the General Assembly must work within existing legal parameters to increase protections for the life of the unborn, rather than knowingly pass unconstitutional legislation. If the Senate sends the bill back to the House, our members will nonconcur and work out the challenges in a conference committee."
However, the House's top Democrat said he expects the bill to pass the overwhelmingly Republican House if it makes it there.
"That's the foolishness we engage in," said S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. "The people of South Carolina should be embarrassed that as they suffer through having to pay bills for a failed nuclear plant, as they suffer through low education, as they suffer through trying to find higher-paying jobs, what we're down here dealing with is bills that mean absolutely nothing."
The outright ban under debate in the Senate would outlaw roughly 97 percent of the approximately 5,700 abortions performed each year in South Carolina, according to state Sen. Brad Hutto, the Orangeburg Democrat who egged Senate Republicans into passing the proposal.
Hutto says the ban is unconstitutional and would be struck down in the courts.
However, Senate Republicans said they want to spark a court challenge that could be used to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming abortion rights.
“It’s a historic opportunity to test the new composition of the Supreme Court in hopes of saving tens of thousands of innocent children in South Carolina,” said state Sen. Wes Climer, R-York.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said Thursday he is not concerned the new law, if passed, could be struck down in court.
“Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in,” said McMaster, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in next month’s primary. “I think there’s nothing wrong with that bill, and any bill that reduces abortions in South Carolina, I am for and I will sign.”
Pro-choice women’s groups were being mobilized Thursday to urge their senators to vote against the abortion ban, according to Ashley Crary Lidow, associate director of policy and government relations for the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network’s S.C. chapter.
“We’re not playing games anymore,” she said. “We’re already ranking at the bottom as a state for women’s equality with men, and this is going to tank us straight to the bottom.”
Vicki Ringer, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood Votes South Atlantic, called the Senate proposal "one of the most extreme anti-abortion bills in the country."
"The amended version of the bill approved yesterday would have far-reaching consequences for South Carolina women and families and is in direct conflict with federal law," she said. "Efforts to ban abortion have been rejected by courts and voters time and time again. We urge S.C. legislators to reject this extreme and dangerous legislation.”
Other candidates in the race for governor also weighed in on Wednesday night’s Senate vote.
Mount Pleasant labor attorney Catherine Templeton, who is challenging McMaster in the GOP's June primary, noted that, when she was pregnant with twins, doctors told her one child might have to be aborted.
“My husband and I sided with life. I'm hopeful the House will also side with life," Templeton said in a statement. "They must act swiftly to pass this measure, and others like it, that will give thousands of innocent children the chance to live.”
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, an Anderson Republican running for governor, called Wednesday night a “great night for the unborn.”
“I just think the Lord is doing something,” Bryant said. “The amendment that passed would outlaw 97 percent of abortions in South Carolina. What’s even more exciting is what the House did last night. …. A resounding majority in the House defunded Planned Parenthood.”
State Sen. William Timmons, a Greenville Republican running for 4th District seat in Congress, said some Senate Republicans are interpreting the vote as “divine intervention” because a Democrat — Hutto — offered up the amendment that could be used to ban abortions.
Timmons said state Sen. Richard Cash, one of the staunchest abortion opponents in the Legislature, “has been working 20 years to get this done, and we just kind of backed into where we are now. It’s just interesting. I think somebody is going to write a book about what happened last night.”
However, state Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat running for governor, said the vote was evidence of the Legislature’s “misplaced priorities.”
“This radical, extremist bill not only does not meet the priorities of our state, it is a direct political assault on the constitutional rights of the women of South Carolina,” Smith said. “As governor, I would not only veto this bill, I would work to defeat it before it even crossed my desk.”
Smith's opponents in the June Democratic primary also criticized the vote.
"It's a political game-playing and posturing more than anything else," said Charleston businessman Phil Noble. "It's a diversion. What they ought to be dealing with is corruption, the utility (nuclear fiasco) and fixing our education system."