SC lawmakers haven’t come to an agreement on abortion. Would they let voters decide?

Published: May. 8, 2023 at 4:37 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - It’s been more than nine months since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, sending the question of abortion access back to the states.

While red states across the country have imposed tighter restrictions on the procedure in the time since then, the Republican-dominated legislature in South Carolina has failed to come to an agreement to this point on what that should look like.

But some lawmakers say they believe putting this question to voters on the ballot is the most direct way to find out the true will of the people on this issue.

“We have reached a place in America with abortion that every person, I mean, almost every person who’s an adult in South Carolina has given some thought to abortion, and I would hazard to guess that the vast majority have opinions about abortion,” Sen. Greg Hembree, R – Horry, said during the Senate’s debate on a ban from conception last month, which failed to pass the upper chamber at the State House.

A January poll from the South Carolina Policy Council of likely voters of both parties asked if they would support or oppose a state constitutional amendment to restrict or ban most abortions.

Nearly half the respondents, 47.6%, said they would oppose it, while about a third, 34.7%, said they would be in support. The rest said they were unsure or had no opinion.

In that same poll, 52.1% of respondents said they believe abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances in South Carolina, while 34% said it should be legal under any circumstances, and 13.9% believe it should be illegal in all circumstances.

Hembree proposed putting the question to voters in a referendum during the Senate’s most recent abortion debate last month, saying legislators don’t know how the state Supreme Court will respond to any future abortion restrictions the General Assembly passes

In January, the court struck down South Carolina’s former six-week ban in a 3-2 decision, ruling it as violating the right to privacy in the state constitution. Since then, however, the court’s makeup has changed: The only woman on the court, who authored the majority opinion in that ruling, has retired and been replaced with a male justice.

“If it passes, it is clear that we have that authority. The Supreme Court is taken out of the equation,” Hembree said.

But Hembree’s push failed, and so too have previous attempts at the State House recently to let voters decide directly.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, called it a cop-out for the legislature to send tough issues to voters as constitutional amendments.

“We were elected, all of us were questioned, whether you be Republican or Democrat or whatever, everybody was questioned, what is your position on this issue? And you had to take a position. That’s just a way to kind of dodge the issue,” Massey said.

On Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster echoed Sen. Massey’s thoughts.

“The voters are making those decisions through their elected representatives to the House and Senate now,” McMaster, a Republican, said. “I don’t know that we need to have that much more time elapse before we make a decision. I think we have to do something now.”

An answer at the State House could be coming soon.

On Tuesday morning, members of the House Judiciary Constitutional Laws Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the six-week abortion ban that has already passed the Senate, the first time House Republicans have been willing to take up this bill. An hour after that meeting, the full House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet and discuss the bill.

This comes after the state Senate failed multiple times since last fall to pass the House’s ban on abortion from conception, stymied by opposition from all Democrats and a handful of Republicans against such restrictive measures.

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