COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate passed an abortion ban on Thursday in the Republican-led chamber's latest quest to craft a law that passes constitutional muster, but differences with a stricter proposal from the House could derail the effort once again.
Republicans have faced several setbacks in their efforts to further restrict abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal protections this summer, allowing the conservative state's previous ban to take effect.
First, a special session spanning a dozen meetings throughout the summer and fall resulted in no new ban when neither chamber budged from their respective proposals. Then, just days before lawmakers convened this January, the state's highest court narrowly struck down a 2021 law banning abortion after cardiac activity is detected around six weeks of pregnancy.
With Thursday's 28-12 vote, Senate Republicans insist they have found their solution in a ban on abortions after cardiac activity is detected around six weeks of pregnancy. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey emphasized that several clarifications of the bill’s language and repeals of conflicting laws will satisfy a majority on the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The Senate measure includes exceptions for rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly and the patient’s life and health up to 12 weeks. Meanwhile, a full ban from conception has again advanced to the House floor in a development that threatens to prevent another abortion restriction from becoming law in South Carolina.
The vote indicates that Senate Republicans' position has not changed since this fall. The overall body appears uninterested in pursuing any alternative restrictions — lesser or greater. Republican Sen. Sandy Senn’s amendment to instead bar abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy failed to pass. Sen. Richard Cash, one of the Legislature’s most vocal abortion opponents, withdrew his amendment that would have matched the House proposal.
Senators moved quickly to advance the long-sought Republican priority. Republican leadership bypassed the traditional committee process to hold a vote this week on the bill. Massey said additional public input was unnecessary given the mountain of testimony over years of hearings on the issue.
Supporters said the court's January decision added urgency to prevent the state from serving as what Republican Sen. Billy Garrett called an “abortion haven.”
But in doing so, some of the five women in the chamber said the Senate failed to address key nuances in the fraught subject. Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews called the effort a “knee jerk" reaction by the “heavy hand of a bunch of men.”
Senn suggested the rush came at the proposal's own legal expense.
"There’s no way the court can make an informed decision with the scant legislative record,” Senn said Thursday, adding: “It was ramrodded through committee and it’s been ramrodded on this floor.”
The Charleston Republican was the only member of her party to ultimately vote against the ban. She and Massey sparred repeatedly this week as Senn attempted time after time to amend the bill.
The measure states outright that it does not ban contraception. One of Senn's failed amendments sought to explicitly name implants and emergency contraception like Plan B in the list of protected forms of birth control.
Massey said the bill had been carefully crafted to ensure such contraception is allowed. Senn said a doctor had expressed concerns that the proposal’s medical definitions could be interpreted to exclude certain forms like copper intrauterine devices.
The measure also requires physicians to share a patient’s name and contact information with the local sheriff in the event of an aborted pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. Another amendment sought to prevent that information’s disclosure unless the patient consents.
Sen. Mia McLeod noted that most victims do not report the crime. By requiring that physicians divulge that information, McLeod said the chamber seemed to have “no appetite for balance.”
“And there’s a reason for that,” Senn responded. “We’re not going to have balance until more women run and until more women get elected.”
It was not the only time the lack of women got attention this week.
The stark gender divide that unfolded in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's summer decision reemerged as Senn and the other four other senators repeatedly called attention to their minority status in the 46-member chamber.
“Did you know that with us five women here in the state Senate, that there are millions -- literally millions -- of people here in South Carolina depending on the five of us to make sure this bill is just so?” Republican Sen. Penry Gustafson asked Senn on Wednesday.
Several key changes were made before its final passage. Judges would have discretion to impose sentences up to two years imprisonment and fines up to $10,000 for a physician in ownership of medical records who fails to properly maintain documentation relating to abortions. Another amendment made it clear that doctors do not need to delay emergency care necessary to save a patient's life or health by first taking an ultrasound to check for a heartbeat.
The bill would also repeal a 1974 law criminalizing people who seek abortions. While Massey said he had never heard of the statute's enforcement, the Senate wanted to remove the possibility altogether.
Both Cash and Massey urged the lower chamber’s Republican supermajority to pass their version.
“Let’s take the win. And if you want to continue pushing for something more aggressive then so be it. But don’t stop this one,” Massey told reporters on Thursday. “Let’s at least save thousands of lives and we can continue talking about whether we can go further or not. But pass this bill.”
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.