The GOP leaders of the S.C. House on Thursday pledged to reject a Republican-backed state Senate proposal that would ban virtually all abortions in South Carolina.
That helps ensure the bill — which would permit abortions only for cases of rape, incest or serious medical emergencies — has a tough road to passage, even after getting the Senate’s preliminary approval, 28-10, late Wednesday night.
Senate Democrats filibustered all day Thursday and into Friday morning to delay the final of three required votes. Senate Republicans failed to muster enough votes on four separate occasions to sit down filibustering Democrats, including Marlon Kimpson of Charleston, Margie Bright Matthews of Colleton and Brad Hutto of Orangeburg.
Still, Republicans continued to push for the outright ban, voting to keep the Senate in session Friday — a rare step for a Legislature that meets Tuesdays through Thursdays. Some GOP senators said they would be willing to work into the weekend, if necessary, to break the Democratic filibuster.
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The proposed ban would outlaw about 97 percent of the roughly 5,700 abortions performed in South Carolina each year.
The ban is up for a final vote in the Senate after state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, essentially dared Senate Republicans on Wednesday night to drop their proposed ban on rare “dismemberment” abortions and vote for an outright ban on almost all abortions in the Palmetto State.
Hutto contends that an outright ban would be unconstitutional and promptly struck down in court. He said his amendment was "an attempt to get it (the abortion issue) to the courts, so we don't have to keep debating it, over and over," allowing the Senate to move on to other issues.
But Senate Republicans said they were eager for a chance to put the question to the U.S. Supreme Court. That court's makeup recently changed with President Donald Trump’s appointment of conservative Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The Republicans hope to spark a court challenge that overturns the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman’s right to have an abortion.
“We need to find a good vehicle to allow the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade, and this is a great vehicle,” said state Sen. William Timmons, a Greenville Republican running for the 4th District seat in Congress.
Pro-choice women’s groups blasted the proposed ban, urging their members to tell their senators to vote it down.
But the majority of everyday South Carolinians would favor the ban, a 2014 Winthrop Poll suggests.
That poll found that nearly seven in 10 South Carolinians think abortion should be legal when the mother’s life or health is at risk, or if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.
But 53 percent said abortion should be illegal in cases where the baby is physically or mentally impaired, and 68 percent said abortion should be illegal for mothers or families that can’t afford to raise the child.
Current state law bans abortion after 20 weeks.
The abortion debate, which has raged in the Senate since Tuesday, stemmed from a House-passed proposal to criminalize “dismemberment” abortion — a rare, late-term procedure in which a doctor uses forceps to pull apart a fetus and remove it from the womb, piece by piece.
That procedure — used to terminate late-term pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother or to abort a non-viable fetus — accounted for only 22 of the 5,736 abortions in South Carolina in 2016, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
However, after Hutto’s dare, the GOP-majority Senate expanded the dismemberment ban into an outright abortion ban.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, said the overwhelmingly Republican House would insist on changing the dismemberment-ban-turned-abortion-ban back into a dismemberment bill. Simrill called Hutto’s amendment a "diversion from the real issue of protecting unborn children from a barbaric procedure that allows for dismemberment in the womb."
"Unless Roe v. Wade is overturned,” Simrill said, “the General Assembly must work within existing legal parameters to increase protections for the life of the unborn rather than knowingly pass unconstitutional legislation. If the Senate sends the bill back to the House, our members will nonconcur and work out the challenges in a conference committee."
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats jumped on the opportunity Thursday to shame their GOP counterparts.
Sen. Kimpson, the Charleston Democrat who led his party’s filibuster Thursday, blamed Republicans in the, traditionally, more moderate Senate for adopting “something that even the House doesn’t want to do.”
Kimpson had help filibustering.
State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, suggested the bill’s language could be interpreted to outlaw birth control, including the Plan B pill.
However, Senate Republicans rejected that notion, and Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, filed an amendment clarifying the bill would do no such thing. That amendment still is waiting to be debated.
Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, proposed an amendment to the abortion ban that would bar Viagra or using other types of male sexual enhancement.
“If we’re going to stop abortions ... let’s stop fertilizations,” Bright Matthews said, shortly before her proposal was ruled out of order. “Let’s stop you from being able to impregnate us. That way we wouldn’t need to have all these abortions.”
Hutto argued state taxpayers would have to pay millions of dollars to defend the ban, if it becomes law, only to see it struck down in court. He filed an amendment that would require the bill's legal defense be financed out of legislators’ salaries, but it was defeated.
In his hourslong oration, Kimpson argued the bill disproportionately would punish the poor.
“No matter what we do today or next week, people with money will still have access to abortion,” said Kimpson, an attorney. “They can get on a plane. They can rent a car. They can get on a train and travel to those states where a woman has the right to choose."
Staff writer Maayan Schechter contributed to this story.