Republican abortion debate inches toward resolution in South Carolina

May 15, 2023, 10:09 PM | Updated: May 17, 2023, 12:26 am

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — 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 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.


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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Republican abortion debate inches toward resolution in South Carolina