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What are South Carolinians' attitudes about abortion, really?

South Carolinians might not agree on the overall yes/no of the abortion question, but exceptional situations are a different story.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
South Carolinians might not agree on the overall yes/no of the abortion question, but exceptional situations are a different story.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has upheld a ban on abortions performed in the state after six weeks, unless for a strict set of exceptions. The debate has sparked broad controversy.

But are we, wherever we stand on abortion, as far apart as it might seem?

“The truth of the matter is, on many concepts, on something even as divisive as abortion, an average Republican and an average Democrat in South Carolina are fundamentally closer than you would ever think by listening to a Democratic or Republican politician," says Scott Huffmon.

Huffmon is a political science professor at Winthrop University, director of the school’s Center for Public Opinion & Policy Research, and founder of the Winthrop Poll. And if you were to take the latest Winthrop Poll to measure South Carolinians’ attitudes on abortion, from May of 2023, as an accurate reflection, you would see that Dr. Huffmon is correct.

Attitudes towards abortion are not as simplistic, nor as slavishly party-line, as one might suspect. Attitudes do tend to lean in the directions you might suspect, but they are far from totalistic.

Republicans and Democrats are far closer on the exceptions that would allow abortion after six weeks than they are over the binary pro life/pro choice dynamic.

Instances of rape, incest, and threat to a mother’s life being the most common ground. Huffmon says it’s part of the yes-but dynamic.

“The easiest yes-but is ‘Yes, I'm against abortion, but that scenario is so bad, I'll allow it,’” Huffmon says. “You have people who say, ‘I am completely against abortion.’ Well, what if the mother child could die? ‘Well, okay.’”

Even if polling has gotten a black eye over the past few election cycles, it’s not easy to dismiss overwhelming numbers. When asked: Should a woman be able to obtain a legal abortion if the pregnancy threatens the woman's life or health? 90% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans polled by Winthrop said yes. If the pregnancy is a result of rape, the numbers are 88% to 69%, Democrat to Republican.

And even though 43% of Republicans said they favor an exception if the baby is likely to be born with severe disabilities or health problems (compared to 75% of Democrats), the number is still well above the 29% of Republicans who said no.

Perspectives on abortion get even more nuanced when you start to factor in race, Huffmon says.

“Many of the most conservative people are also religious African Americans,” he says.

Historically other polls that have shown two things. One is an opposition to abortion overall, but also a tolerance of people having children out of wedlock.

“[Some people say] one of those is liberal, one of those conservative,” Huffmon says. “No, those are ideologically consistent. If you are going to be against abortion, you darn well better be tolerant of children out of wedlock.”

Huffmon says the acceptance of children born outside of marriage doesn’t correlate to white conservatives, but it does contribute to Black voters going consistently Democrat.

“So you still see over 90% of African Americans voting Democratic, including the ones who wish abortion never happened,” he says. “But it's because things are a little more complex than one-issue voting. [Many African Americans] realize that, ‘If I am going to have a society where single mothers who didn't get an abortion can have support, I'm actually better off with this party rather than that party.’"

Huffmon is not a fan of how the abortion conversation is typically portrayed by media outlets, social media personalities, and politicians looking to tap into the reactionary emotionalism the very topic elicits. Largely, he finds two main political roots for the way things are at the moment – gerrymandering and political primaries.

“Because of partisan gerrymandering,“ he says, “there are seats that are always going to be Democratic, that are always going to be Republican. And in South Carolina, the majority of them are always going to be Republican. So in order to win it, you need to win over the people who are going to vote in the primary. Who's going to vote in the primary? The furthest right. So, you need to come out of that primary, you need to come into your seat being hyper conservative on issues such as abortion, and it turns out, you're not reflective of the general state of South Carolina, but you're not even reflective of your general party. You're reflective of the people who vote in primaries.”

In South Carolina’s 2022 primaries not quite 17% of eligible voters went to the polls.

In May, Gov. Henry McMaster signed the state’s abortion act into law. With the exceptions of “medical emergencies, rape, incest, or fatal fetal anomalies,” the law bans abortions sought after six weeks. The measure was almost immediately blocked by a federal court judge, which led to the state Supreme Court taking up the matter.

The state Supreme Court had in 2021 (prior to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022) blocked a similar law to cap the gestational limit at six weeks. The court, post-Dobbs, also blocked a 2022 abortion bill that was stricter than the current law. But in the past year, the South Carolina Supreme Court’s makeup has changed – most notably by becoming all-male.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.