Politics & Government

SC’s heartbeat abortion ban heads to Senate floor, now with exceptions for rape, incest

South Carolina’s fetal heartbeat abortion ban advanced to the Senate floor Tuesday, just after a divided Senate Medical Affairs Committee decided to reinsert exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

However, those exceptions come with a new and controversial requirement that the pregnant woman first file a police report alleging the crime.

The plan to outlaw abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, before many women realize they are pregnant, is unlikely to pass a fractured state Senate in which even the proposal’s Republican supporters are divided over those exceptions.

Still, Senate Republicans pushed the proposal forward Tuesday with a 9-6 vote that split along party lines.

The proposal is part of an effort in GOP-controlled statehouses to defy Roe v. Wade and spark court fights that give the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling that affirmed a woman’s right to have an abortion.

The bill, H. 3020, is similar to fetal heartbeat bans that have already passed in a half dozen conservative states. All of those bans have been blocked or overturned by federal judges.

The full Senate can take up the bill when the Legislature returns to Columbia on Jan. 14 for the second half of a two-year session. But the bill might never come up for debate, since Democrats are promising a fight and Republicans are unsure they have the votes to pass it.

The GOP-controlled House already passed the proposal, with rape and incest exceptions, and Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has promised to sign the proposal into law if the Senate follows suit.

But two weeks ago, a GOP-dominated Senate panel removed those exceptions, arguing all unborn children deserve the right to life, regardless of how they were conceived.

The Senate Medical Affairs Committee — which had 14 men and one woman in attendance Tuesday — continued the debate over those exceptions for an hour and 45 minutes.

They wound up approving a plan by state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, that allows for abortions in case of rape or incest — but only if the pregnant woman has filed a police report alleging the crime.

Senate Democrats unsuccessfully fought that amendment, arguing women who are raped don’t file police reports for a variety of reasons, including because they fear for their safety or are embarrassed to admit what happened on a public police report.

State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, said women who file police reports also are subjected to invasive procedures and questioning.

“You don’t just walk into a station and get a police report,” Bright Matthews said.

Vicki Ringer, a regional spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, said the “exceptions themselves do not make a bad bill better” and stem from lawmakers’ assumption that women will lie about being raped in order to have an abortion.

“Lawmakers in this state think so poorly of women,” she said. “I was embarrassed for them.”

Davis recognized some concerns raised by Democrats but said his plan tightens up language that could have allowed women seeking an abortion to claim rape or incest without much documentation.

At one point in the debate, Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, urged his colleagues to get back to the basics.

“When abortion takes place, that child is sentenced to death without due process,” Martin said. “I just don’t want to let that get lost on the committee.”

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, replied that even with Davis’ exceptions, the bill is much more restrictive than current state law, which outlaws abortions after 20 weeks.

That law, passed in 2016 and approved by then-Gov. Nikki Haley, included exceptions for pregnancies with fetal anomalies that are usually detected much later. The current proposal does not include such exceptions.

The bill would outlaw about 55% of abortions performed in South Carolina, and doctors would face criminal charges for performing abortions after a heartbeat has been detected.

“Senator, you can’t put lipstick on a pig,” Kimpson said. “This bill is still a pig. We’re denying a woman’s right to choose.”

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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.