COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — Abortion will soon be severely restricted in one of the last bastions of legal access in the southern United States.
The South Carolina Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would ban most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy — before most people know they are pregnant — and sent it to the Republican governor who has promised to sign the bill as soon as possible.
The proposal reinstates a 2021 ban that went into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade Last year. The ban was overturned by the state’s highest court because it violated the state constitution’s right to privacy.
South Carolina reported an increasing number of abortions following the ruling, which left abortion legal until 22 weeks of pregnancy, while other southern states enacted stricter laws.
Abortion is banned or severely restricted in much of the South, including bans during pregnancy in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. In Georgia, it’s only allowed for the first six weeks.
Most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy will be banned in North Carolina starting July 1 after the state’s Republican-controlled legislature successfully overruled the Democratic governor’s veto last week.
A legal battle is widely expected in South Carolina. Vicki Ringer, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said Tuesday evening that her organization would file for a temporary restraining order after Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signs the measure.
Any challenge that makes it to the South Carolina Supreme Court would also face a new benchfor the only woman who gave the main opinion in the abortion case had reached the retirement age set by the court.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey expressed confidence in the law’s continuation.
“It’s been a long and bumpy road, but it was an important debate to have,” Massey, a Republican, told reporters on Tuesday. “I’m glad we finally got a resolution on this. It’s something that’s going to make South Carolina not the destination state for abortion in the Southeast and I think that’s important.
The move marks the end of a months-long standoff between the two Republican-led chambers. The South Carolina House backed down a proposal to ban abortion at conception almost entirely and passed the new restrictions last week after nearly 24 hours of debate spanning two days. Senators had tried three times to muster the votes needed for the near-total ban in the past year.
Last attempt failed last month after the only five women in the 46-member chamber successfully obstructed the proposal. Members of the coalition known as “sister senators” – three Republicans, a Democrat and an independent – again fought the new bill.
In scathing speeches, the three Republican women said the six-week ban did not give women enough time to make a decision. They urged other members of their party to adopt a 12-week abortion ban instead in what Senator Katrina Shealy called a “true compromise”.
“We in the South Carolina Legislative Assembly are not God. We don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s life. We don’t have the right to make decisions for anyone else,” Shealy said.
Shealy and Republican Senator Penry Gustafson had voted for an earlier version of the six-week ban, but said they could not support the changes inserted by the House. Shealy criticized a new requirement that biological fathers pay child support from conception as “ridiculous”. House Republicans also removed a provision expressly allowing minors to petition the court for an abortion up to 12 weeks pregnant.
Republican Senator Sandy Senn has denounced new sections allowing civil lawsuits against doctors who violate the proposal and requiring patients to sign an additional form certifying that they had a chance to see the ultrasound. She called the latter demand a bullying tactic that “piles up paperwork” on women.
Massey insisted the differences were ‘not significant’ and that largely technical changes were needed to satisfy a South Carolina Supreme Court justice who previously voted with the court’s 3-2 majority to lift the last ban.
The bill provides exceptions for fatal fetal abnormalities, life and health of the patient, and rape or incest up to 12 weeks. The doctors could face felony charges of up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The 15 Senate Democrats, united against the two abortion bans, have largely let the Republican majority debate the issue among themselves. As they have done before, Democrats suggested on Tuesday that voters decide the issue. Opponents also argued that South Carolina’s high maternal mortality rates — with even poorer outcomes among black patients — would worsen under the new restrictions.
The three Republican women joined all Democrats in voting against the bill.
“I’m conflicted because I want to reduce abortions but I don’t want to eliminate the rights of women and mothers,” Gustafson told reporters after the vote.
Much like when they first entered the State House on Tuesday, the Senate women were greeted with enthusiastic applause from the dozen or so remaining abortion-rights supporters as they exited the chamber. The five threaded buttons that said “elect more women”.
Independent Senator Mia McLeod said she was heartbroken that a male-dominated chamber voted on a bill that would have a “devastating impact on women and girls for generations”.
“We should be initiating the discussions because only we have first-hand knowledge of what it takes to not only give birth but to raise a child,” she told The Associated Press.
While those discussions may be over this session, some of the most ardent abortion opponents in both chambers are already eyeing the 2024 election.
Republican Senator Richard Cash acknowledged that the current Senate composition lacked votes for a tougher proposal, but vowed that “the fight will continue” to ban all abortions. If re-elected, he said “there will certainly be a renewed effort to protect life at an earlier time”.
Shealy, a Republican who dismissed claims that she is a “baby killer” in her speech, cited conversations with “real people” in her conservative district as the impetus for her decision.
“I did not get elected to be re-elected. I was elected to do the right thing,” Shealy said.
This version of the story replaces the 12th paragraph to correct the fact that Republican senators opposed a six-week ban as not giving women enough time to make a decision, not 12 weeks.
James Pollard is a member of 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 underreported issues.