COLUMBIA — The state Senate's vote to outlaw nearly all abortions in South Carolina drew criticism Thursday even from some anti-abortion activists, as they worried the proposal offered by a pro-choice Democrat would end up dooming their efforts.
The amended bill, tentatively approved 28-10 late Wednesday, would allow abortions only in cases of rape, incest and saving the mother's life. The outright ban on all other abortions would disregard the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that made abortions legal nationwide, inviting a legal challenge.
The abortion bill needs another approval vote in the Senate to advance, but Wednesday's changes made breaking a promised filibuster more difficult. Repeated attempts Thursday to sit Democrats down failed.
The debate threatens to bog down the Senate for the rest of session, which is set to end next week. That may block senators from even taking up bills dealing with the fallout of the $9 billion failed nuclear power project in Fairfield County, which customers have been funding through their electricity bills since 2009.
When the session began in January, legislators in both chambers said the debacle would be their top priority this year. Other bills in the logjam include those aimed at stemming opioid abuse.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, accused his GOP colleagues of wasting the session's waning days on pure politics in a year voters elect a governor.
"This body dominated by men is going to tell women what to do with their bodies," instead of talking about the abandoned V.C. Summer nuclear project, education or other issues voters want addressed, said Kimpson, who held the podium for hours Thursday.
The abortion bill senators began debating Tuesday would have banned a method that abortion foes call "dismemberment." The second-trimester method, medically called "dilation and evacuation," accounted for 0.03 percent, or 22, of all abortions in South Carolina in 2016, the most recent year state statistics are available.
With the debate dragging on, Sen. Brad Hutto — who typically leads the chamber's pro-choice opposition — actually encouraged Republicans to alter the bill to bar all abortions.
Anti-abortion legislation "comes up year after year after year. Every time, you acknowledge you're not doing much but incrementally chipping away at it here and there," said Hutto, D-Orangeburg. "A bill that repeals Roe v. Wade is guaranteed to get into court. If you want to go to court, let's go to court."
Hutto sarcastically told his Republican colleagues they shouldn't allow another state's anti-abortion law to make it to the nation's high court first, when South Carolina could be the one wasting millions of dollars on attorneys.
Earlier this week, the Iowa Legislature approved a bill banning most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy.
Holly Gatling, director of South Carolina Citizens for Life, said Senate Republicans should have rejected Hutto's proposal.
"It was a disingenuous, deliberate poison pill amendment," said Gatling, who's advocated for anti-abortion laws for years. "The purpose was to kill the 'dismemberment' bill."
Republicans pushing the effort said they want to pass a law that ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court, in hopes that new justices would reverse the 45-year-old ruling.
Sen. Richard Cash, R-Powdersville, told his GOP colleagues not to base their decision on whether a ban could eventually be upheld. The state must try, regardless of the cost, he said.
"Saving a life is more important than surviving a court challenge," Cash said. "It is way past time to challenge the Supreme Court. Babies that are being killed yesterday, today, and tomorrow — that was their one and only chance at life. They deserve a right to life."
However, he argued the ban as passed still didn't go far enough. He wanted no exceptions.
Before Republicans voted last week to give the abortion bill priority status, Democrats warned that could shut down the rest of the session. Ending Democrats' filibuster requires a supermajority vote in the Senate. Senators are generally reluctant to end any filibuster. A bill that all sides acknowledge repudiates a U.S. Supreme Court ruling only strengthened the opposition.
If the Senate does give final approval, the House must then agree to the changes.
Gov. Henry McMaster, who faces four Republicans in a primary next month to keep his job, made it clear Thursday he would sign any abortion bill. As for a court fight, he added, "Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in."
Last year, there were 5,112 abortions in South Carolina, down from 5,878 in 2013. It's unknown how many of those were due to rape, incest or to save the mother's life. The state's public health agency doesn't track those numbers.
Senators voted to resume the debate Friday, a day they don't normally meet.