COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — For the second time since the U.S. Supreme Court ended federal abortion protections, the South Carolina House has passed a near-total abortion ban — and shows no sign of budging.
The lower chamber’s Republican supermajority on Wednesday continued its efforts to make South Carolina the 13th state with a ban from conception. By a 83-31 vote largely along party lines, the House advanced a bill including exceptions for rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly and the patient’s health and life.
A long road awaits any abortion restriction before it reaches the governor’s desk. Republican lawmakers in the conservative state have failed to agree on when exactly pregnancy can be legally terminated. A special session last year proved a vain attempt to restrict abortion after the two chambers could not reconcile vastly different bills.
The stalemate persisted Wednesday.
The move again puts the House proposal at odds with the GOP-controlled Senate’s version that passed last week. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey has maintained that the upper chamber lacks the votes for the House’s more restrictive bill. Instead, Republican senators have advanced an amended version of the prior ban on abortion after cardiac activity is detected around six weeks. Earlier this year, the South Carolina Supreme Court struck down a similar 2021 law as a violation of the state constitution’s right to privacy in a 3-2 ruling.
House leaders drew a hard line in the sand on Wednesday.
“There is a legislative process that we go through. And there’s conference committees and there’s negotiations between parties,” Speaker Murrell Smith said. “But at this point the House simply didn’t have the votes to pass the ‘heartbeat’ bill.”
Contrary to Senate Republicans’ insistence otherwise, Smith said the House version is the only proposal that could withstand legal scrutiny.
The opinion of one justice in the abortion decision’s three-person majority has served as a lodestar for Republicans seeking to craft an abortion ban that passes constitutional muster. Justice John Few suggested that the right to life might outweigh the right to privacy if the General Assembly determined that human life begins at conception. By passing an abortion ban from conception, Smith expressed confidence that Few’s vote would flip.
For one of the General Assembly’s most vocal abortion opponents, the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision has shifted the goal posts. Republican Rep. John McCravy said he designed the state’s previous so-called “fetal heartbeat bill” to tempt the U.S. Supreme Court into doing exactly what it did last summer: overturning Roe v. Wade. With that roadblock removed, McCravy said lawmakers need to go beyond their previous efforts.
“We’re in a new position now,” McCravy said. “We’re not drafting a bill to try to tease the United States Supreme Court. We’re drafting a bill for South Carolina.”
The bill explicitly states that it does not criminalize patients who receive an abortion. But the proposal allows the patient, a minor’s legal guardians, a solicitor or the state’s attorney general to sue others who illegally end a pregnancy. Plaintiffs could receive damages of $10,000 for each violation.
Under the proposal, a biological father must begin child support payments from the date of conception and cover half of all pregnancy expenses. If the child is conceived through rape or incest, the offender would also fund any resulting mental health counseling.
The bill also requires physicians who end a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest to report the allegation to the local sheriff within 24 hours of the abortion.
Wednesday’s debate divided the measure’s leading proponent and one of the chamber’s most conservative members. McCravy successfully tabled multiple amendments from fellow Republican Rep. Josiah Magnuson that would have removed exceptions for rape and incest. While he personally shared Magnuson’s opposition to those exceptions, McCravy said their inclusion was necessary to pass the bill.
Magnuson put forth another failed amendment allowing someone who intentionally gets an abortion to be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. McCravy said lawmakers should “fall down on the side of mercy and not criminalize women.”
Republicans also removed the ability for a family court to grant abortion rights to minors without their legal guardians’ knowledge.
They also rejected several Democratic amendments. Rep. Heather Bauer — a first-year member who flipped her Columbia-area seat in a campaign centered on abortion rights — tried to remove what she called an “archaic” 1974 law criminalizing people who attempt self-managed abortions. While the Senate voted to remove the statute last week, the House did not.
Bauer and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter also proposed several processes similar to this fall’s Kansas referendum, when voters in the conservative state overwhelmingly protected abortion access. House Republicans dismissed the effort as futile because constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote from each chamber — something the GOP-majority General Assembly would never do.
Theological debate also broke out several times between Christians on both sides of the aisle who all claimed biblical support for their different positions.
House Democrats criticized their Republican counterparts for pushing laws they said would worsen maternal mortality and teen pregnancy rates and drive OBGYNs away from a state already lacking in all those areas.
“Year after year, we don’t debate bills intended to improve the health outcomes for women and children,” Rep. Spencer Wetmore said at a Tuesday press conference. “Instead, we spend months of every legislative session debating how we can restrict the reproductive rights of women.”
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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