Politics & Government

SC pro-life push could lead to criminal charges against women if abortion bill passes

Doctors and pregnant women could be charged with murder under a S.C. bill that seeks to criminalize abortion.

Another bill seeks to overturn the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion.

The proposed legislation shows pro-life S.C. lawmakers are gearing up for a new fight over abortion restrictions after being blocked by Democrats last year. About 120 pro-life supporters gathered at the S.C. State House on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to fight to protect the unborn.

“The right to choose should never trump the right to exist,” said Spartanburg pastor Bunty Desor.

State Sen. Richard Cash, R-Anderson, and state Rep. Josiah Magnuson, R-Spartanburg, have introduced “personhood” bills in the Senate and House that would ban almost all abortions. The proposals would establish that the unborn have legal rights at the moment of conception.

With few exceptions, South Carolina currently prohibits abortions at 20 weeks or more of pregnancy, a restriction passed in 2016.

Magnuson’s bill would mirror legislation introduced in 2017 by then-state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson. It would grant legal protections to human life, starting at conception. But it also includes exceptions for medical emergencies when the mother’s life is in jeopardy, as well as in-vitro fertilization.

Cash’s bill includes similar exceptions. But it would make having or performing an abortion a felony, for which doctors and pregnant women could be charged. Nurses, the parents of the mother and the father of the child, too, could be charged as “morally” and “legally culpable” accessories or accomplices.

Speaking at Wednesday’s rally, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who supports Magnuson’s bill, repeated his pledge to sign a personhood bill and pleaded with lawmakers to end abortion in the state.

“We must stand tall and stand together and be strong,” McMaster told the crowd.

“It’s an intention to recriminalize the killing of unborn babies in this state,” Cash said of his bill. “When you kill an unborn baby in the womb, that doctor is committing murder.”

Cash later said his bill would not say, specifically, that women who get abortions should be criminally charged but leaves that up to the discretion of law enforcement and prosecutors.

“There is no doubt that many woman are pressured (into having an abortion),” Cash said. “They’re coerced. They’re intimidated. They’re literally threatened. ... But if we say a mother is simply a victim ... then we, in fact, are denying ... moral responsibility to someone for their decision.”

The “Personhood Act” failed to pass the state Senate last May and faces a tough road again this year.

The latest anti-abortion proposals received a chilly reception Wednesday from a Senate Democrat.

Abortion rights are “settled law” under the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, said state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, calling the continued push for abortion restrictions a waste of time.

House Judiciary Chairman Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, said the House likely will pass pro-life legislation this session. But, he added, “First and foremost ... we have to make sure any legislation we send over is going to be, No. 1, constitutional.”

Opponents argue personhood bills are unconstitutional.

Vicki Ringer, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, declined to comment on Cash’s “extreme viewpoints,” saying they “are not in alignment with the beliefs of most South Carolinians.”

Recent Winthrop University polls have found the majority of South Carolinians agree abortion should be legal but limited to a few circumstances — when the mother’s life or health is at risk, or if a pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.