COLUMBIA - A long day on the Senate floor on Tuesday kept a bill aimed at expanding Stand Your Ground laws for pregnant women from being discussed, infuriating the senator who introduced it.
The Women's Protection Act aims to allow a woman to use whatever force necessary if she fears a person is trying to cause her or her unborn child harm. The bill was clouded in controversy, after critics raised an issue with how it defined an unborn child.
S. 527 defines an "unborn child" as "the offspring of human beings from conception until birth." Critics argued the bill was a so-called "personhood bill" in disguise, one that aimed at giving legal protection and constitutional rights to embryos from the moment of conception, at the expense of the women's access to birth control, emergency contraception and other essential services.
Author of the bill, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said critics are reading into the bill and it makes no sense. She added nowhere in the bill does it say anything about birth control or abortion.
"Women who are pregnant are the most vulnerable," Shealy said. "All these people who think I'm trying to get this unborn child. I don't know where they're getting that from."
As for defining an unborn child, Shealy argued how else would someone call what's growing in a woman's stomach, adding an unborn child has to be defined somehow.
Emma Davidson - spokeswoman for Tell Them, a reproductive health education foundation - countered that a pregnancy has been widely based on the moment of implantation; when the egg reaches the wall of the uterus.
"Prenatal personhood is dangerous for many reasons, and that is just the standard," Davidson said. "If you try to define life beginning at anything earlier than implantation, you're going to hear about it from the women's groups."
Davidson classified Shealy's bill as one of six personhood bills introduced by lawmakers this year. All, she said, aim to take away women's access to birth control pills, in vitro fertilization and emergency contraception, even in cases of rape or incest.
Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, author of two of the Senate's personhood bills, said that argument was dishonest.
"You can't expect the mother to lose her life in order to try to save the child," Bright said. "What you would try to do is save both. There's no rational person that would want to arrest a doctor because he lost a child trying to save a mother's life."
Bright added that an unborn child is still a human being that should have rights. His bills are trying to get in statute that life begins at conception, so that it would be a fundamental challenge to Roe v. Wade, he said.
The introduction of personhood bills in South Carolina does little to buck a national trend, said Jordan Ragusa, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. Many states have introduced personhood bills. Some have actually passed them, but they've been struck down by state supreme courts.
"We really do see similar patterns across the country, both in terms of these personhood bills and these attempts over the last 40 years to very gradually chip away at Roe v. Wade," Ragusa said. "It would sort of fit that mold."
He added similar bills introduced on a national level have not received much support, and that there's a big difference between bills being introduced and being passed.
Davidson said every year, for 16 years, the legislature has introduced bills with personhood language. She added she believed Shealy was doing her best to protect pregnant women and was simply unaware of the unintended consequences of the language in the bill.
"I think Senator Shealy really did put out a bill that she thought was going to help pregnant women ward off attackers and allow pregnant women to take ownership of stopping intimate partner violence, and I commend her for doing that," Davidson said. "This is not the way of doing it."
All three of the Senate's bills - Shealy's and Bright's two bills - are not likely to pass this year. There won't be enough time to discuss them in committee before the May 1 deadline when Senate moves to concentrate on bills that have a chance of passing this session.
Shealy promised to reintroduce the bill during next year's legislative session, adding her goal is to protect women. When asked about opponents of the measure, she said critics were wrong.
"They're not reading it right," Shealy said. "It's not what I'm about."
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.
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