Abortion debate continues in S.C. special session

Published: May. 16, 2023 at 2:20 PM EDT|Updated: May. 17, 2023 at 11:39 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Abortions would be almost entirely banned after about six weeks of pregnancy under a bill debated early into Wednesday morning by the South Carolina House in a development that follows months of Republicans in the chamber insisting instead on a near-total ban that the state Senate recently rejected.

However, a final vote would have to wait until later in the day after the House moved to reconvene at 10 a.m. while the computer system rebooted. The proposed ban brings the two GOP-dominated chambers close to resolving a disagreement that epitomizes the intra-Republican debates unfolding nationwide how far to restrict access since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year.

“It became like we were playing with live ammunition,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Tom Davis, who helped block the near-total ban but supports other limits. “It was like this is for real now and everything that we debate and pass is going to be law.”

The end of federal abortion protections has forced politicians to go beyond bumper sticker slogans and acknowledge the nuances in public opinion, said Alesha Doan, a University of Kansas professor who studies policy and gender.

The conflict within the Republican Party arises from officials’ attempts to delineate their positions on an issue where they don’t align with most Americans, she said.

“Once you get what you want, the real work begins,” Doan said. “What are the on-the-ground implications for pregnant people’s healthcare? What are the legal implications, the public health implications, the political implications?”

Conservatives in other states also charged forward with restrictions on Tuesday.

The North Carolina General Assembly overrode the Democratic governor’s veto on a 12-week abortion ban that Republicans quickly advanced after securing veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

Meanwhile, Nebraska lawmakers pushed a 12-week ban after a more stringent proposal recently failed. The state Legislature mustered just enough votes to fold the limits into another bill banning gender-affirming healthcare for minors.

But the impasse in South Carolina had persisted since last fall’s special session when neither chamber budged from their respective near-total and roughly six-week bans.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Larry Grooms said the majority party’s “troubles” began then when some House lawmakers “wanted to be more pro-life” by demanding a near-total ban that lacked the necessary support in the Senate.

“For those folks, the politics were more important than the policy,” said Grooms, whose biography lists awards from anti-abortion and conservative Christian groups.

The stalemate continued even after the state Supreme Court struck down a previous law banning abortions once cardiac activity is detected.

That January decision left abortion legal through 22 weeks of pregnancy, and Republicans have since been rankled by state health department data showing a sharp increase in abortions.

The measure still under debate Wednesday would ban abortions when an ultrasound detects cardiac activity, around six weeks and before most women know they are pregnant. It includes exceptions for fatal fetal anomalies, the patient’s life and health, and rape or incest through 12 weeks.

Senators believe that several tweaks and a new court makeup will allow the measure to withstand anticipated legal challenges.

Opponents say a ban around six weeks is essentially an outright abortion ban. South Carolinians oppose such restrictions “because it pushes health care further out of reach for the vulnerable, and makes pregnancy more dangerous for everyone,” Ann Warner, the CEO of Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, said last week in written testimony.

The bill will need to clear the Senate again before reaching the governor, who has indicated he would sign the measure. The House has already added changes to mandate child support starting at conception and require that a judge sign-off on any minor’s request for an abortion.

Debate stretched over 12 hours past 1 a.m. Wednesday even after Republicans invoked rules limiting debate. Democrats slowed the process by speaking for all three allotted minutes on each of their hundreds of amendments and forcing other procedural votes.

“We are going to make it hurt if they’re going to force this on us,” Democratic Rep. Beth Bernstein said Tuesday morning, flanked by dozens of supporters with signs reading “BANS OFF OUR BODIES.”

Again, Democrats spoke until time expired. Again, Democratic hands flew up to call for a vote. Again, the amendments got tossed.

They reminded colleagues of the state’s rising infant and maternal mortality rates that are even worse for Black patients. They noted the gender disparities in state government. They advocated for Medicaid expansion.

An often indifferent scene otherwise unfolded inside the chamber. Several lawmakers tuned into a livestreamed budget conference committee in the afternoon. Seltzer cans and coffee cups piled up. Word games and online poker flashed across tablets.

The debate kicked off a special session called by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster. Lawmakers receive extra pay for each day they convene — a cost totaling $60,000 on Tuesday alone, according to Republican Rep. Weston Newton.

That figure drew Democratic criticism of wasted taxpayer money. Republicans countered that “protecting life” is a priceless endeavor.

The long grind marked one of the only tools for House Democrats whose superminority status gives them little power. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter repeatedly urged abortion rights supporters to challenge Republican officeholders next election.

“If you want to see something done about men and women who are in this chamber who think you as a woman don’t have sense enough to say what you want to do with your body, then get busy,” she said..

Democrats vow to fight

Three female Democrats from the South Carolina House of Representatives promised they would fight a six-week abortion ban during a special session of the General Assembly.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, began her comments with a question for taxpayers in the state.

“Do you really think it is worth paying us an extra $260 a day, each, in addition to mileage and subsistence? Do you think it’s worth it to the taxpayers of South Carolina, that it’s going to cost us almost $60,000 a day to come back here and talk about abortion and banning abortion when we could just as easily have done this in January? And for those of you who say yes, please don’t let me ever hear you talk about taxes and wasting taxpayer money,” she said.

Rep. Heather Bauer, D-Richland, called the debate over abortion and the potential for the passage of a new six-week ban “a complete invasion of our privacy.”

“Our freedoms are at stake, our personal liberties,” she said. “This is about making sure that politicians stay out of my family decisions, out of my doctor’s offices and also out of my bedroom.”

“We are voting against women,” said Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland. “I can’t say that more strongly than that.”

She referred to protesters nearby who held up signs that read, “Celebrate life.”

“I want to celebrate life. I want to celebrate the life of a mother who is carrying a child who has a fetal anomaly and it’s a risk to her life...to be forced to carry her unborn child when there’s no change that that fetus will survive,” she said. “And that’s the life I want to celebrate. It’s the women here who we are standing here trying to protect.”

Cobb-Hunter also offered a message to those with the “Celebrate life” signs.

“We welcome those of you with the signs saying ‘celebrate life’ to join us when we try to do something about gun violence, which is the number one cause of death of children in this state,” she said.