It started as a story about a young woman with a pregnancy test in one hand and a law school acceptance letter in the other.
The young woman had a "darn good" grade-point average, a proud family and a fiance. But she faced a difficult choice that would change her life forever, state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews said Thursday, taking the floor of the Senate to fight a proposal to defund South Carolina's abortion providers.
The Colleton Democrat then said the story was her's. She revealed publicly, to a near-silent Senate, that she considered having an abortion, allowing her to pursue a law degree and avoid her father's disappointment. She scheduled an appointment and missed it. Then, she scheduled another and missed it, too.
Ultimately, Bright Matthews gave birth to a baby girl — Jessica Bright, now 32 — on the Monday she was to enter law school.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I had to go through that choice and, with it, I grew up," she said. "And with it, no longer was I daddy’s girl. No longer was I the smartest one (in the family). I had to grow up and make the decision.”
But not every woman would make the same choice or is as equipped to live with it, Bright Matthews said, defending South Carolina's three abortion clinics against a proposal to use the state budget to defund them.
The majority of the Senate voted with Bright Matthews on Thursday, narrowly defeating proposals by two Upstate Republicans to defund the three clinics, which also provide family planning services — from birth control to testing for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.
Those clinics currently get no taxpayer money to provide abortions — except for pregnancies that result from rape or incest, or pregnancies that endanger the life of the mother.
However, Republican state Sens. Richard Cash of Anderson and Shane Martin of Spartanburg proposed Thursday stripping away all other public money that goes to the clinics, including Medicaid reimbursements for birth control and other treatments.
They suggested rejecting some $34 million in federal Medicaid money, marked for "family planning" services, since some of that money is used to reimburse abortion providers for nonabortion treatments.
Cash and Martin said the state should come up with its own $34 million and spend it for family planning services at clinics that don't kill the unborn. Defunding the clinics in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville would pressure them to stop offering abortions, they said.
"If they got out of the killing-baby business, they wouldn't lose any money," Martin said during the Senate debate.
Cash and Martin also argued taxpayers in ruby-red South Carolina — many abortion opponents — should not have to pay for abortions.
“Why in the world should we expect that taxpayers of South Carolina want to pay for babies to be killed?” Martin asked.
But state Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat — who threatened Wednesday to filibuster the Senate's budget debate over a separate abortion ban proposed by Cash — said the senators' proposal would strip away life-saving services, not stop abortions.
“Those are family planning dollars,” he said. “He’s trying to attack one perceived problem, but he’s going after money that doesn’t go in that direction."
In a statement, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic public affairs director Vicki Ringer called the anti-abortion proposals part "of a continuing trend of politically motivated attacks on women's health care in South Carolina."
"The defeat of this political move ensures that South Carolinians who rely on Medicaid as their primary insurance can continue to seek basic health services at the provider of their choice, including Planned Parenthood," Ringer said.
The Senate fight over defunding abortion providers originated in the Republican governor's race.
Last year, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant — one of five candidates running in June’s GOP gubernatorial primary — declared he would not sign any state budget that included a penny for abortion providers. (If the Anderson Republican doesn't sign the budget, another top Senate leader could do it in his place.)
Also, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster of Columbia last year issued an executive order blocking state agencies from paying state or local taxpayer money — including grants, contracts or state-administered federal money — to any doctor or medical practice that provides abortions.
But McMaster's order depends on the state Health and Human Services Department getting a waiver from the federal government to allow the agency to refuse Medicaid reimbursements to abortion clinics and doctors. Thus far, it has not.
Cash and Martin's proposal Thursday differed because it would have rejected outright the $34 million in federal Medicaid spending, rather than request a waiver for how the money must be spent.
The proposals were debated for hours Thursday, as the Senate worked to finalize its version of the state's $8.2 billion general fund budget that takes effect July 1. Both narrowly were voted down — 22-20 and 23-18.
State Sen. Matthews, who went on to graduate from the University of South Carolina's law school, said Thursday choosing to have her daughter, rather than end her pregnancy, taught her empathy and respect.
"I learned ... the people who really love you are going to have your back," she said. “What we’re doing here is going to rob people of their choices.
"Are we going to play God?”