COLUMBIA - National legal trends and local, grassroots anti-abortion efforts appear to have converged in the S.C. Senate.
Anti-abortion measures that have rarely, if ever, gotten a hearing in what's known as the Legislature's "deliberative" chamber are scheduled to be taken up on Thursday. In the state Senate, individual senators have power to delay or kill individual pieces of legislation, which helps explain why even though both chambers are dominated by Republicans, anti-abortion measures have often been passed by the S.C. House and then don't see the light of day in the Senate.
That may change Thursday as four bills make their way to Senate subcommittees. Senators are expected to debate S. 83 and S. 457, two so-called "personhood" bills sponsored by state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg. They define life as beginning at fertilization. That premise has been struck down by federal courts, but anti-abortion advocates say a new challenge is necessary.
S. 204, also sponsored by Bright, would require that those who perform abortions to develop a legal relationship with a local hospital known as "admitting privileges." It also makes abortion providers - many of whom are family doctors - seek an additional medical certification.
Pro-choice advocates say those are unnecessary hurdles for abortion providers. A version of the admitting privileges bill drew attention in Texas when state Rep. Wendy Davis staged an 11-hour filibuster in an effort to delay the bill. It eventually passed, and has effectively closed two out of three abortion clinics in the state, health experts say.
A fourth bill, S. 527 is the "pregnant woman's protection act," sponsored by Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. It would essentially establish a "stand your ground" law for pregnant women that says "a pregnant woman is justified in using physical force or deadly physical force" if she feels threatened. Women's health advocates worry that the bill's language includes the definition of an unborn child as a person, which they say could be legally problematic and outlaw abortion, even though that's not the main thrust of the bill.
Shealy, South Carolina's only female senator, said that her bill is meant as a "statement" because of South Carolina's severe problem with crimes against women. She said that she wasn't aware the bill would be construed as an anti-abortion bill, but it's a position she agrees with.
"It's more to bring out the fact that women are more subject to crimes than men are," she said of the bill. She acknowledges pregnant women are already allowed under existing law to stand up to their attackers.
Pro-choice and women's health advocates say that all three measures are problematic and could have wide-ranging consequences beyond preventing abortion. Access to birth control, fertility treatments and treating pregnant women in an emergency could all be affected for the worse, they say. "It would have far reaching consequences and create . a whole range of issues that really have nothing to do with abortion but have to do with medical treatments," said Victoria Middleton, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
Bright, who is running for U.S. Senate, said that he has been trying to get hearings on the anti-abortion measures for years. While all of them landing on the same day is likely a coincidence, he said pressure from anti-abortion groups and pastors has pushed Senate leaders to schedule hearings.
Efforts that would declare an unborn child a person have failed 16 years in a row and never had a hearing in the Senate, Bright said.
"It's murder," Bright said of abortion. "You would think that this country would preserve the innocent."
Bright and others say that legislators have seen what has worked to prevent abortion in other states, including Texas, and hope to replicate those efforts here.
Pastor Kevin Baird of Legacy Church in Charleston said he's also seen more energy around the anti-abortion movement in recent years. Technology and science have yielded a better understanding of the unborn child, and many younger Americans are beginning to get more involved in the anti-abortion movement as a result, he said.
Baird, who plans to testify Thursday, said that 7,000 "South Carolinians died last year" due to abortion. "Who speaks for them?" Baird asked. "They are not a voting bloc. None of them are going to go up to the subcommittee and give testimony. They have no recourse or appeal considering their sentences. They are at our mercy."
The anti-abortion bill that has the best chance of passing this year, lawmakers said, is a ban of 20-week abortions currently being considered by the House. Those late-term abortions are rare and account for less than 1 percent of all abortions. Women's health advocates fear that, if the bill is passed, doctors may decide not to abort pregnancies even if it is the appropriate medical decision.
But because no South Carolina abortion clinics perform 20-week abortions, anti-abortion advocates say the bill would have little effect. "For many of us in the pro-life movement, we're scratching our heads," Baird said. "This addresses what - maybe zero to some anomaly? Then we feel like we have a victory?"
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the bills don't have much of a chance and are a waste of time. "Republicans do not like women," he said. "I trust the women of South Carolina to be able to make decisions about their bodies, about themselves, about their lives. I don't see a group of old men in the Senate trying to toy with the healthcare of women. That is best left to them and their doctors."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837 or on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden.