The S.C. House of Representatives passed a “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban Wednesday that would criminalize abortions after about six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant and before the fetus can survive outside the womb.
Lawmakers voted, 70-31, mostly along party lines, for the controversial proposal after a five-hour debate.
The bill has little chance of becoming law this year, as the Senate is unlikely to take it up with just seven working days left in the 2019 legislative session. But Wednesday’s vote sets up the potential for passage when the General Assembly reconvenes in Columbia in 2020.
The proposal, which would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, has never made it this far in South Carolina. Similar bills introduced in in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018 all died before making the House or Senate floor.
House Democrats, including Rep. David Mack, complained that their Republican counterparts continue to push abortion bans every year “for a soundbite” while leaving other problems unsolved.
“This waste of time is sickening to me,” the Charleston Democrat said. “We go through this every year and the bottom line is, it’s a woman’s body and it’s her right to choose.”
House Republicans disagreed.
“There’s no higher priority than life,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood.
Supporters of the bill say the presence of a heartbeat indicates life and means that an abortion amounts to murder. Opponents, including Planned Parenthood, say the bill restricts a woman’s ability to make decisions about her body with her doctor.
Such bans, passed in other states, so far have been blocked by judges or ruled unconstitutional, but House Republicans see an opportunity to spark a court challenge that overturns Roe v. Wade. The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb, usually about 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
“In particular, conservative state legislatures are looking to enact abortion bans in the hopes of kick-starting litigation that will give the U.S. Supreme Court, and its majority of conservative justices, ample opportunity to undermine or eliminate abortion rights,” according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that advocates for reproductive rights.
Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio and Georgia have passed heartbeat abortion bills this year, and other states — including Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas — are also expected to approve similar measures this year. All, however, are tied up in court or will likely face legal challenges.
A federal district court blocked enforcement of a fetal heartbeat law passed in Kentucky. Only two other states, Iowa and North Dakota, have ever enacted six-week abortion bans, both of which have been struck down by the courts.
Current state law prohibits abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy and later. That law was passed in 2016 as part of ongoing efforts among conservative lawmakers to restrict women’s access to abortion.
The bill would permit abortion of a fetus with a heartbeat only when the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life or physical health, or in cases of rape or incest.
Exceptions for rape and incest were not part of the original bill. They were added after a push by state Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Charleston, who said she was raped as a teen, and despite the efforts of some of her fellow Republicans.
“Rape is not a partisan issue,” Mace said. “A rapist is not a father. And I hope and pray any women or teenager who is raped or assaulted or a victim of incest would choose life. (But), I’m not going to take that (decision) away from anybody else. You have no idea what a woman or child goes through who is a victim of rape of incest.”
Some of her GOP colleagues, however, argued the exception punishes the unborn for crimes and actions outside their control.
“If a victim of rape should not be blamed, then why should the product of the rape be blamed,” asked state Rep. Jonathan Hill, R-Anderson.
The bill does not include an exception for severe fetal anomalies that would lead to death after birth. Those anomalies often develop later in pregnancy.
It will face stiff opposition in the Senate. Last year, Senate Democrats filibustered for days to defeat an outright abortion ban proposal. State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who led that filibuster, has told The State he would do so again “if necessary to protect a woman’s right to make tough personal health decisions.”
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, complained of toxic masculinity and mansplaining in the General Assembly, arguing Republican legislators who support the fetal heartbeat abortion ban should be the first in line to support expanding Medicaid and increasing aid and programs for children since they’re all about “life.”
Rutherford also asked why fetal heartbeat abortion bill supporters haven’t pushed the state’s child welfare agency for answers about how many people have died on their watch.
“Don’t pretend you care about children. You only care about a political issue,” Rutherford said.