S.C. GOP leaders say bill that could impose death penalty on women who get abortions won’t become law

Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 6:21 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina is one of just two states where women can face criminal charges for illegally getting abortions.

Now a group of state lawmakers wants to take that further and allow the state to impose the death penalty on women who undergo the procedure.

H.3549, titled the “South Carolina Prenatal Equal Protection Act of 2023,” would ban abortion and criminalize it as homicide, meaning women who get abortions could face penalties ranging from 30 years in prison to a death sentence.

It has more than a dozen sponsors in the state’s House of Representatives — most of whom are members of the ultra-conservative, 20-member South Carolina Freedom Caucus, including its lead sponsor, Republican Rep. Rob Harris of Spartanburg County — though that number has dropped since the bill made headlines across the country.

But Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said the legislation has “zero chance” of becoming law.

“What we’ve got over here, it’s just a rogue thing that’s going on over there,” Massey told reporters this week at the State House. “It’s not going to have support in the House, I suspect. It certainly wouldn’t have support over here. I mean, there’s no way South Carolina’s going to do that.”

But a decades-old part of state code does criminalize women who illegally get abortions, which is after about five-and-a-half months into a pregnancy under current state law.

Penalties for the misdemeanor charge escalate to up to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

An analysis by If/When/How, a California-based abortion access advocacy group, found at least four women have been charged in the last 20 years under South Carolina’s self-managed abortion ban.

That includes a woman in Greenville, who was arrested and charged last month after terminating her pregnancy in 2021 at nearly 26 weeks, past the current legal limit of around 20 weeks.

“This state is a place where, if you are having a pregnancy outcome, you need to be careful about what you say and who you say it to, because some folks will come after you,” Ashley Lidow of the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN), which promotes abortion access in South Carolina, said.

There have been pushes to remove those penalties from state law, where they have been in place since the 1960s and 1970s.

Earlier this year, Senate Republicans passed a ban on most abortions after around six weeks into a pregnancy.

In that bill, senators also included a provision to repeal the existing part of state code that criminalizes women who illegally get abortions. The amendment, proposed by Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D – Orangeburg, was adopted in a bipartisan, 39-3 vote.

“We wanted to make that definitive statement. That’s not what we’re going at. We wanted to stop abortion, but we weren’t trying to put women in jail, women who were in desperate situations, in jail,” Massey, who voted for the repeal amendment, said.

Last month, House Republicans passed their own abortion bill, a ban from conception.

While that bill did not add any new criminal charges for those who get abortions, House members also voted down an amendment to repeal the criminalization already in the law in a 77-27 vote along party lines.

The House is where the new bill, the one sponsored by Rep. Rob Harris that could impose the death penalty, is filed.

“The House has no intentions of taking this bill up,” Speaker of the House Murrell Smith, R – Sumter, said in a statement, referring to Harris’ bill. “When the House passed pro-life legislation earlier this year, we made it very clear we were not in the business of criminalizing women.”

Rep. Heather Bauer, D – Richland, said on Twitter this week that she plans to soon file another bill that would decriminalize getting an illegal abortion.

“We know in South Carolina, with supermajorities, where there’s a will, there’s a way. They can pass this law if they want to,” Lidow said, referencing Bauer’s bill. “They’ve all said they want to protect women. I would like to see it happen.”

Asked whether he would support a standalone bill like Bauer’s, Massey said he was open to passing a decriminalization measure but also believes the legislature still needs to pass tighter restrictions on abortion as well. The Senate-passed abortion bill would accomplish both those goals.

At present, the House and Senate remain at an impasse between their two abortion bills — the ban from conception and the ban from six weeks, respectively — with Republican leaders in both chambers saying they don’t have the votes to take up the other’s bill.

“I think it’s something that we need to address, and I would hope that some personality differences aren’t going to keep that from happening,” Massey said.

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