A proposal to outlaw abortions in South Carolina after about six weeks of pregnancy got a first round of approval in the state Senate on Tuesday after Senate Republicans removed protections in the bill for women who become pregnant from rape or incest.
The GOP- and male-dominated Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee approved the bill in a 4-3 vote that split along party lines. The same outcome is expected in the full Medical Affairs Committee, meaning it is only a matter of time before the proposal reaches the Senate floor, where it faces major obstacles to passage.
The Senate debate, which already featured a day-long September hearing with more than 50 speakers, likely will turn up a notch after Republicans Tuesday successfully moved to strip out exceptions that allow abortions of pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
Those exceptions were added by the S.C. House, which passed the bill earlier this year, after state Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Charleston, told the story of her rape as a 16 year old.
“Those of you who will applaud after this vote, your applause will be temporary,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat who promised to use Senate rules to delay a final vote on the bill when the lawmakers return to Columbia on Jan. 14 for the 2020 legislative session.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has said he would sign the bill into law if the Senate passes it.
The bill would outlaw the majority, or 55%, of abortions performed in South Carolina. Doctors would face criminal charges for performing abortions after a heartbeat has been detected, typically around the sixth week of gestation — before many women know they are pregnant.
This year’s proposed ban is similar to fetal heartbeat bans that have already passed in a half dozen conservative states, but those bans have all been blocked or overturned by federal judges.
Abortion is legal under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, but GOP-controlled states in recent years have passed laws that whittle away at those protections or outright defy that landmark decision.
S.C. Republicans have acknowledged the proposal is part of an effort to spark a legal fight that gives the newly constituted U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. They have said spending taxpayer dollars on that court challenge is worth it if it means preventing the thousands of abortions performed every year in South Carolina.
The bill has been a lightning rod for criticism from some S.C. women and doctors for further restricting abortion and for its lack of exception for pregnancies with fetal anomalies. But before Tuesday, it also was decried by some conservatives for failing to protect unborn fetuses that result from rape or incest.
“You are in fact killing an innocent human being,” said state Sen. Richard Cash, the Anderson Republican who proposed stripping out the exceptions for rape and incest. “Whether you mean to or not, you are punishing a person wrongfully for something he or she had nothing to do with. ... Anyone who is alive who was conceived in rape would probably be very glad that they are alive and would probably be very willing to discuss and argue with you about their right to life while in the womb.”
State Rep. John McCravy, the Greenwood Republican who originally sponsored the bill, said he was happy to see the rape and incest exceptions removed.
“It appeared that the ranks stayed together today, the pro-life people voted pro-life, and that’s great,” McCravy said. “We feel like that’s a positive move. The only thing keeping this bill from becoming law, we believe, is going to be on the floor of the Senate, and we think we will prevail there.”
Efforts to reach Mace, who pleaded with her House colleagues to add those exceptions and now is running for Congress, for comment were unsuccessful by Tuesday afternoon.
The bill was approved Tuesday by a Senate subcommittee with six men and one woman — Democrat Margie Bright Matthews of Colleton County, who voted against the bill. It is expected to sail through the full, GOP-controlled Senate Medical Affairs Committee — 15 men and two women — and reach the Senate floor. The Medical Affairs Committee will likely meet in November to take up the bill.
The real question, as usual, is whether Senate Republicans can muster the votes necessary to end an inevitable filibuster by Senate Democrats. Two years ago, during a weeklong debate over a proposal that would have banned all abortion in South Carolina, they couldn’t — and Senate Republicans admitted defeat.
At a press conference in the State House lobby shortly after the hearing, women’s rights advocates promised strong opposition to the ban during the upcoming legislative session.
“The bill currently being advanced is radical insofar as it does not respect our diverse faiths and philosophies ... and that life’s most difficult choices are more suited to private conversations between a patient and their doctor than to State House subcommittee rooms full of strangers in Columbia,” said the Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, senior minister at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston.
The press conference ended with a call to action from Susan Dunn, the interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
“Let these legislators know — burn up their phones and emails — that this is not what South Carolina wants,” she said.