COLUMBIA — State senators on Tuesday removed exceptions for rape and incest from a bill that bans abortions roughly six weeks after conception, potentially setting up a conflict with the House, which approved the exceptions earlier this year after contentious debate.
Senators in committee voted 4-3 to strike the exceptions, as proposed by Sen. Richard Cash, R-Powdersville, the chamber's most ardent abortion foe. Another 4-3 vote advanced the measure to the full Medical Affairs Committee.
The bill, H.3020, would make it illegal to get an abortion in South Carolina after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which occurs five to eight weeks into most pregnancies.
As he offered his amendment, Cash acknowledged the issue is divisive but said he had to stick to his values.
"While there are no easy answers in such a situation, there are right answers," Cash said.
Opponents called the measure a further transgression against the rights of those women and girls who have been victims of a brutal crime.
"That's just kind of horrific," said Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning.
The bill has been moving through the committee process since the legislative session ended in the spring. The Senate could take it up early in 2020, the second half of the two-year session. But that's no guarantee it will actually pass in a chamber where previous anti-abortion bills have failed. Democrats will almost certainly try to block debate, and it's uncertain whether a supermajority exists to force a vote.
The House had added the exceptions at the urging of Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, who shared her experiences as a victim of sexual assault. After hours of heated debate, the House passed its overall bill on a 70-31 vote.
Cash said the Senate could not be overly concerned about the way the bill passed the House.
“I understand the feelings ran high on both sides, but each chamber has to do its own duty,” Cash said after the subcommittee vote.
The bill would amount to a ban on all abortions since many women do not even realize they are pregnant for the first six weeks, abortion rights advocates say.
About two-thirds of abortions in South Carolina are conducted after six weeks of gestation, according to 2017 data from the state’s health department.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said the amendment takes the bill further than measures in other states and could make it even more likely to be overturned in court.
“I view this amendment, frankly, as a poison pill,” Kimpson said.
Abortion opponents across the country are hoping the time has come for a full U.S. Supreme Court review of the nation’s abortion laws.
Federal courts so far have not been favorable to the similar measures passed in at least five other states, including Georgia. The Georgia measure was blocked from taking effect earlier this month, with federal District Court Judge Steve C. Jones saying it appeared incompatible with current law.
Cash said the Legislature should do what it thinks is right on the issue instead of worrying over what courts will uphold.
“If we’re going to just base our decisions on what a court might say, we won’t do much,” Cash said.
Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, noted that the committee had been called back to Columbia in what usually is an off period for the Legislature. She said GOP lawmakers were trying to make progress before they risk losing ground in the 2020 elections.
“All of a sudden, it became an emergency,” Matthews said.
Ep. 11: In this week's Understand SC episode, we discuss everything we know (and don't know) about abortion restriction bills.