S.C. Senate begins debate on six-week abortion ban; ban from conception advances to House floor

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Published: Feb. 7, 2023 at 7:25 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A month after the South Carolina Supreme Court struck down the state’s six-week ban on abortion, new restrictions are now up for debate at the State House.

If they pass, they are likely to be challenged again.

On Tuesday, senators began a debate on restrictions they just introduced a week before.

Republicans voted to fast-track this bill and bring it to the floor for debate without holding a single hearing on it or taking any public testimony, though lawmakers did hear hours of testimony on abortion during last year’s special session when they failed to get a bill to the governor’s desk.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said data from the Department of Health and Environmental Control shows the number of abortions in South Carolina started rising after the state Supreme Court blocked the former six-week ban from being enforced last August before ultimately ruling it unconstitutional this January.

“Our numbers are increasing exponentially. That is because South Carolina has become an abortion destination state because our laws are significantly weaker than anyone around us,” Massey said, explaining states like Georgia and Tennessee tightened up their abortion laws after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.

But Democrats contend the legislation is an overreach of power from the legislature over the judiciary after it had already ruled on a similar law.

“It is a reaction by this body to our Supreme Court’s decision protecting a woman’s right to privacy,” Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D – Colleton, said. “It’s a reaction to rein another body in.”

The bill senators are debating is close to the “Fetal Heartbeat Law” the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional.

It would ban abortion from the time a “fetal heartbeat” is detected, typically around the sixth week of pregnancy, with exceptions for the mother’s life and health, fatal fetal anomalies, and sexual assault victims, though the latter is only before 12 weeks. The struck-down law allowed victims of rape and incest to legally access abortions before 20 weeks.

As with the previous law, sexual assault victims would be required to report those crimes to law enforcement.

This new bill adds a documentation requirement for doctors who perform abortions under the fatal fetal anomaly exception, mandating they hold on to those patients’ medical records for at least seven years after the abortion or face a felony charge and prison time.

Massey, explaining the bill on the floor for about half an hour Tuesday, noted the new bill also defines pregnancy as when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus, which he said was intended to protect access to common forms of contraception, and adjusts language the Supreme Court referenced when issuing their injunction and ultimate ruling.

“The revisions that we propose here are directed at addressing concerns that the justices raised and in fact relied on in forming their opinions,” Massey said.

Critics — and Justice Kaye Hearn in her majority opinion of the 3-2 Supreme Court ruling — have argued the six-week timeline is too short for a woman to know she is pregnant and make an informed decision about whether to end that pregnancy.

“I’ve had four children, and for none of them have I known I was pregnant at six weeks,” Bright Matthews, one of five women in the Senate, said.

Last year’s special session, convened after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the question of abortion access back to the states in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in June, ended with no bill after the Senate and House of Representatives were unable to come to an agreement over how restrictive to make the legislation.

Sen. Richard Cash, R – Anderson and one of the most ardent abortion opponents in the Senate, proposed an amendment Tuesday that would ban abortion from conception, only allowing the procedure to save the mother’s life.

A vote to table that amendment, killing it, failed as Democrats voted against the measure alongside Republicans in favor of the tighter restrictions.

The debate ended for the day after that, and it will continue on Wednesday.

Massey, as he did several times during the special session and ahead of this year’s new legislative session, reiterated there is not enough support in the upper chamber to pass a ban from conception, and he urged his fellow Republicans to avoid becoming entangled in that debate again.

“We don’t have the votes in this body for a ban earlier than a heartbeat is detected. That’s where we are,” he said on the floor Tuesday. “But this is a big deal. Y’all this is a big deal. We’d save thousands of lives with this.”

Democrats maintained their stance that abortion access should be left up to voters.

“We have said over and over and over again in this chamber that we trust South Carolinians, that they get it right,” Sen. Ronnie Sabb, D – Williamsburg, said.

Later on Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee advanced a more restrictive bill to the House floor, where it will await debate.

That bill titled the “Human Life Protection Act,” is similar to the House-approved bill from the special session. It would ban abortion from conception with the same exceptions allowed in the current Senate bill.

Both the House and Senate bills would criminalize people who perform abortions, but neither does so for those who seek abortions.

Any bill that passes will almost certainly be challenged again in state court.

On Wednesday, the legislature is scheduled to elect South Carolina’s new Supreme Court justice, slated to be Judge Gary Hill.

He will replace Hearn, the only woman on the current court and the author of the majority opinion in the decision to strike down the six-week ban last month, who has reached the state-mandated retirement age for judges.

Last week, Republican leaders at the State House filed requests for the Supreme Court to rehear arguments in that case, but Massey said Tuesday he expects those asks will be denied.

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