Politics & Government

SC senators will pay at ballot box if abortion ban doesn’t pass, activists warn

Get ready for a heavy-weight bout in 2020 over abortion.

In one corner, well-funded women’s and reproductive rights advocacy groups are planning an ad campaign and social media blitz. In the other corner, well-organized and energized social conservatives and faith leaders promise problems at the ballot box for GOP legislators who continue to stall passage of abortion restrictions.

South Carolina’s anti-abortion movement scored a victory with Wednesday’s passage in the S.C. House of a bill that would effectively ban most abortions in the state following years of unsuccessful attempts.

The bill, which now goes to the Senate, would make it illegal for an abortion to be performed once a fetal heartbeat is detected — usually within five to six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant and before the fetus can survive outside the womb. The bill requires a doctor to test for a heartbeat by ultrasound before conducting an abortion and allow the mother to see the ultrasound and hear the heartbeat.

If the bill becomes law, any doctor who performs an abortion on a fetus with a heartbeat would be charged with a felony, punishable by a $10,000 fine or up to two years in prison, or both.

The Senate’s math problem

The bill, however, faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Senate, where previous abortions bans have stalled and where one senator can hold up legislation.

Right now, the votes simply aren’t there to pass the bill in the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said.

While Massey expects “a lot of interest in trying to push it next year, ... it’s a math question right now,” he said. “We didn’t have enough (votes) last year, and we have fewer votes this year.”

Last year, Senate Democrats filibustered for days to defeat an outright abortion ban proposal. This year, they are threatening a repeat. And Republicans have lost some allies.

Columbia Democrat Dick Harpootlian won a special election to replace former state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, who could not vote during the last abortion debate due to his suspension as he faced criminal charges.

Also, with the Senate’s reorganization, the lieutenant governor no longer presides over the Senate and breaks tie votes. In the past, the Republican lieutenant governor was a reliable “yes” vote. Now, a tie goes to “no.”

“We saw this movie last year,” Massey said. “And, candidly, I think the fetal heartbeat bill is a more aggressive piece of legislation than what we had on the floor initially last year. ... If you get it up for discussion, it’s going to be the exact same conversation as last year.”

Democrats also say debating abortion is a waste of time, as similar policies have been blocked in other states, and a distraction from more pressing issues.

Activists ready to target lawmakers

Abortion opponents see the issue another way.

Lawmakers, especially Republicans, will be under the gun from a vocal part of their base in 2020 that sees abortion as a litmus test heading into an election year. All members of the S.C. Senate will be up for re-election in 2020.

“It’s hard to get anything out of the Senate, but next year is an election year and in conservative, pro-life South Carolina, there will be that outcry of ‘This needs to happen,’’’ said former state Rep. Joshua Putnam, president of the Palmetto Family Council.

Both he and Holly Gatling with South Carolina Citizens for Life say social conservatives and evangelicals are fired up across the state in the wake of fetal heartbeat measures passing in other states, including Georgia, and New York passing a new abortion rights bill.

They say their supporters, including pastors, are ready to blow up senators’ phones and inboxes, pack committee meetings and launch social media campaigns urging them to move the bill forward.

“If they can’t get a pro-life bill across the finish line, I don’t know that the constituency of South Carolina, especially the faith community, will be pleased with having another pro-life bill stall out,” Putnam said.

Lawmakers most vulnerable, he said, will be those in the Upstate, with active social conservatives, as well senators from the Grand Strand.

“We’ll see soon who is holding up the bill and those lawmakers will naturally get pressure, and the grassroots will focus on those members,” Putnam said. “We saw who those members are in the last pro-life battle.”

Women’s group to launch billboards, ads

On the other side, the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network is launching a multi-platform advertising campaign to raise awareness around “dangerous legislative attacks on reproductive freedom, and to demand S.C. women be treated with equality, respect, and dignity.”

The new ad campaign, set to launch May 6, will feature four billboards in downtown Columbia, as well as digital ads on The State and the (Charleston) Post and Courier during the final days of the legislative session, WREN CEO Ann Warner said.

Following committee hearings, the group held a “People’s Filibuster” with abortion-rights advocates opposing the bill sharing their personal stories and views on the legislation on Facebook Live.

“The stakes are going to be real high in 2020 because of the election,” Warner said. “And we need to ensure the voices of those actually affected by these kinds of bills are activated and mobilized, and not (allow) this to be a game of politics.

“Pregnancy and parenting are deeply personal, and we don’t need interference by our General Assembly.”

Similarly, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic plans to ramp up its digital ad campaign and use social media to marshal its supporters to urge lawmakers to kill the bill. The group used social media to solicit some 2,000 letters delivered to House lawmakers asking them to protect access to safe and legal abortion.

“We’ll work hard to protect champions of reproductive health care, and remove those who are trying to restrict access to reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortion,” said Sarah Riddle with Planned Parenthood Votes South Atlantic.

Similar laws face court challenges

Bans similar to the fetal heartbeat legislation, passed in other states, so far have been blocked by judges or ruled unconstitutional. But anti-abortion advocates 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.

Supporters of restricting abortion access in South Carolina welcome a constitutional challenge to the fetal heartbeat bill, should it become law, a risk they say is in their favor given the addition of conservative justices now sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But how quickly the bill moves, or if it moves at all, depends on several factors.

“By the time we come back into session next year, there should be federal court action (on similar bans passed in other states) that will give us direction,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, primary sponsor of a companion fetal heartbeat bill that has languished in the Senate Medical Affairs Committee without a hearing.

Multiple attempts to reach that committee’s chairman, Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, were unsuccessful.

State Sen. Richard Cash, R-Anderson, whose priority is to pass an all-out ban on abortion, said he opposes exceptions for rape and incest in the fetal heartbeat bill, and will continue to push a more sweeping bill that would establish legal rights to the unborn at the moment of conception.

“That’s fundamentally discriminatory towards human beings that have been conceived as a result of rape and incest,” said Cash, whose fervor for fighting abortion has resulted in him being arrested while protesting at abortion clinics. “We’re not talking about potential human beings. We’re talking about human beings with great potential.”

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, the Charleston Democrat who led last year’s filibuster, argues most senators would prefer not have abortion on the calendar in 2020. The Senate has other pressing issues, including bills to decide the fate of a state-owned power company, reform the state’s education system, and proposal dealing with medical marijuana and the state’s pension system.

Asked whether election-year politics would drive GOP efforts to pass the fetal heartbeat abortion bill, Kimpson said politics would be a factor, “but it’s not the only factor.”

“It’s a complex and personal issue for some Republicans and Democrats that transcend(s) pure politics.”

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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.
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