South Carolina Republicans advance new abortion restrictions
South Carolina Republicans are pushing new abortion restrictions in a late attempt to curtail access after a near-total ban failed last month.
A Senate bill that would ban abortion except in the earliest weeks of pregnancy is moving quickly through the South Carolina House in the first sign that Republican leaders may be close to restoring limits passed in 2021 but overturned by the state Supreme Court.
The effort cleared two hurdles Tuesday. Lawmakers advanced the proposal through a morning subcommittee meeting with one hour of public comment and a full committee meeting lasting over three hours.
The measure would ban abortion when an ultrasound detects cardiac activity, around six weeks and before most people know they are pregnant. It includes exceptions for fatal fetal anomaly, rape, incest, and the patient's life and health up to 12 weeks. Doctors could face felony charges carrying a $10,000 fine and two years of imprisonment for violations.
But the House committee voted Tuesday to insert many provisions from the chamber's failed near-total ban. The bill now outlines specific medical conditions like ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages in a list of exceptions to the ban. It also requires that fathers pay retroactive child support starting at conception and cover half of all medical expenses.
Republican Majority Leader David Hiott said Senate negotiators have approved the changes. But a second Senate passage is not guaranteed.
The move comes two weeks after the only five women in the South Carolina Senate filibustered a House bill banning nearly all abortions, and six Republicans helped defeat any chance it becomes law this year.
Two of the three Republican women attended the Tuesday morning deliberations. All three told The Associated Press they don't support any changes.
"We don't have to put everything in the kitchen sink with this thing," State Sen. Penry Gustafson said. "Let's get it across the finish line so we can reduce abortions."
She said House Republicans should have passed the original Senate bill earlier this year.
State Sen. Sandy Senn said she did not expect the new version would pass the Senate, but she added that "crazier things have happened."
"We had told them if you want it to pass, don't move a semicolon," said Senn, who voted against the bill in February. "They were very, very substantive changes. So, yes, we will be filibustering."
The bill now faces a full House vote before returning to the Senate. The session is scheduled to end May 11. But Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has said he will exercise his power to call lawmakers back next week if they do not fulfill a number of GOP priorities.
Abortion remains legal through 22 weeks of pregnancy in South Carolina. The conservative General Assembly has been unable to reach agreement over when to ban abortion after the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled 3-2 this January that a 2021 ban when cardiac activity is detected violated the state's right to privacy.
Republican leaders hope new restrictions will withstand legal scrutiny after they tweaked the measure's language and voted this February on a new state Supreme Court justice.
An all-male bench would hear any challenge that reaches the state's highest court. Justice Gary Hill replaced the lone female justice, Kaye Hearn, who had reached the mandatory retirement age and who authored the lead opinion in the abortion decision.
Republican state Rep. Jay Jordan emphasized Tuesday that the justices sent the ball "back in our court" to craft a new law for their consideration.
Democratic state Rep. Spencer Wetmore accused her colleagues of also recrafting the South Carolina Supreme Court. Jordan responded that all courts change membership.
The committee's debate lasted late into the evening as Republicans defeated attempts to expand Medicaid coverage or reduce the penalty for doctors. Democrats said threatening medical professionals with felony prosecution would drive them away from a state where 15 counties already have no OB-GYN.
Another failed amendment would have expanded exceptions for "severe fetal anomaly" and not just "fatal fetal anomaly."
A Charleston woman had testified that hospital lawyers determined a complicated health defect discovered last July at her 18-week anatomy scan did not count as a "fatal fetal anomaly." Jill Hartle said lawmakers' restrictions added to the stress of an "excruciating decision" by forcing her to get abortion care in Washington, D.C.
"If these bans continue to be placed, this is the utmost breach of privacy any government could impose," Hartle said. "The Republican Party that I used to align with wanted less government. But these bills are total control."
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.