Battle lines drawn in South Carolina’s abortion debate
Abortion rights advocates plan to protest what they see as an effort to fast-track a “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban through committee before the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
A Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee is scheduled to hear four hours of testimony Sept. 10 on a measure which would effectively ban abortions at about six weeks of pregnancy, once a fetal heartbeat has been detected.
A hearing and possible vote before the full Medical Affairs Committee hearing — the last step before the bill hits the Senate floor — could happen this fall.
Anti-abortion activists are happy with the timeline.
“We are pleased that the senators are taking the lives of unborn babies in South Carolina seriously,” said Holly Gatling, executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life.
But opponents of the bill said Republican lawmakers, who control the Legislature and the committees vetting the bill, are trying to sneak the legislation through an important committee process at a time when many South Carolinians are not monitoring activities at the State House.
“By rushing H. 3020 through committee when the Legislature is not in session, the Senate Medical Affairs Committee ... (is) ignoring the wishes of the majority of South Carolina residents, and are doing so at a time when they’ve never had hearings on abortion bans before,” said Vicki Ringer, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.
Opponents argue the bill strips women of their constitutional right to make their own medical decisions, before many know they are even pregnant and before the fetus can survive outside the womb.
“The freedom to decide whether or not to become a parent is a basic right and part of what it means to live a safe and healthy life and to form a family,” said Susan Dunn, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. “There is nearly a half century of legal precedent affirming that an individual has the right to safely end a pregnancy within conditions that are free from political interference, punishment or judgment.”
Supporters of the fetal heartbeat bill say the presence of a heartbeat indicates life and means that an abortion amounts to murder.
Notice of the subcommittee hearing had yet to be posted to the State House website Monday afternoon. However, a staff member for Senate Medical Affairs Committee Chairman Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, confirmed that a hearing on the abortion ban bill is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 10.
A follow up subcommittee meeting is tentatively schedule for Oct. 8.
“This absolutely is an effort to fast-track the bill, because the faster we pass it, then the more lives we save,” subcommittee chairman, state Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, said. “I would go faster, if I could.”
Verdin could not be reached for comment Monday.
The bill passed the S.C. House in April in a 70-31 vote and awaits action in the GO-controlled Senate, where it is expected to face an uphill battle because one senator can hold up legislation, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, told The State in April. Previous abortions bans have stalled in the Senate, and Republicans have lost some allies in the chamber.
Last year, Senate Democrats filibustered for days to defeat an outright abortion ban proposal, and are threatening a repeat in 2020.
Senate Medical Affairs Committee member Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, called the hearing a “charade” intended to “placate the extreme right for political purposes.”
The S.C. bill is part of a flurry of legislative proposals and new laws sweeping state Legislatures. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster pledged to sign the bill into law, drawing applause from Republicans gathered at the S.C. GOP annual state convention in May.
Such bans, passed in other states like Alabama and Georgia, so far have been held up in court and blocked or overturned by judges. But abortion opponents see an opening under conservative judges appointed by President Donald Trump 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.
“(W)e believe it’s important, just like other states, to show our federal leaders who sit on the bench where a majority of states .... and the public stands on this issue,” said former state Rep. Joshua Putnam, president of the conservative Palmetto Family Council, which supports the bill.
Putnam applauded committee members for holding the hearing during the off-session, calling it “wise” to get the controversial bill “primed” for passage so as not to take time away from more pressing matters when the Legislature reconvenes in January.