Politics & Government

Moderate GOP senator under fire for missing vote on SC’s fetal heartbeat abortion ban

State Sen. Sandy Senn, a moderate Republican in a purpling district, says she didn’t skip Tuesday’s vote on the fetal heartbeat abortion ban for political reasons.

In a Facebook post meant to clear the air with “a number of people” who asked about her absence, the Charleston Republican said she stayed home from the offseason Senate Medical Affairs Committee hearing in order to vote on Election Day and stay home with her son while school was out.

Senn complained about holding hearings when the state Legislature is not in session to fast-track the bill and told The State she would have voted against the proposal if she had been there, calling it unconstitutional.

Senn’s stance is important because she is among a handful of swing votes that Senate Republicans need to pass any sort of abortion restrictions.

But one of her 2020 Democratic challengers, James Island businessman Sam Skardon, assailed Senn’s absence in a press release Wednesday.

“The people of Charleston and Dorchester counties were shortchanged today on what was one of the most important votes to be taken in the Senate this year,” Skardon wrote. “This afternoon, its Medical Affairs Committee approved the most restrictive legislation on women’s rights ever to be seriously considered … and our Senator Sandy Senn did not show up.”

(Note: Since the proposal still needs two more votes to pass the full Senate, it’s hard to make the case that Tuesday’s vote was one of the most important this year. And this isn’t the most restrictive abortion ban ever to be seriously considered. The full Senate debated an outright abortion ban in 2018.)

Senn’s stance on the issue is intriguing for a number of reasons.

In February 2018, the freshman senator abstained from voting on a so-called “personhood” proposal that would effectively ban all abortions in South Carolina, saying she thought the plan was unconstitutional but didn’t want to vote against a pro-life bill.

Later that spring, she voted with her Republican colleagues to turn a relatively narrow ban on “dismemberment” abortions into an outright ban on virtually all S.C. abortions.

Then, later in that debate, she voted several times against a GOP effort to end Senate Democrats’ filibuster of the bill, explaining later that the minority party deserved to be heard on such an important issue.

A Catholic lawyer representing a moderate district, Senn has reason to approach the issue with tact.

She could draw a Republican primary challenger next year if she isn’t seen as opposing abortion. But voting for a more restrictive abortion ban could provide ammunition to her Democratic challengers in next year’s general election.

She said Wednesday such politics don’t factor into her decisions.

“That is not weighing in in my view,” Senn said. “I’m a female. I’m a lawyer who believes in the Constitution and Supreme Court. I’ve always made tough decisions. That’s what I’m here for.”

Senn said she can’t say how she will vote on the proposed abortion ban until it comes to a vote, since the bill can still be drastically altered before then.

But she said she would vote against the current version of the bill, which would ban abortions after about six weeks, because it is unconstitutional. South Carolina should leave any court fight over the issue to other states that have already passed fetal heartbeat abortion bans, she said.

“I have no desire to get South Carolina into an extensive legal battle if we’re not going to win,” Senn said. “If it does not morph into something more palatable, then I can’t support it. It’s going to have to be something that would clear a legal challenge.”

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.