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Abortion ban more likely to pass next year with expanded GOP majorities in SC Statehouse

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Gov. Henry McMaster speaks to reporters on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. McMaster said he believes a bill to ban most abortions in South Carolina is "more likely" to pass due to expanded GOP majorities in the Statehouse. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — An effort to ban abortions in South Carolina as early as the sixth week of pregnancy could be more likely to become law next year after Republicans expanded their majorities in both the state House and Senate in the 2020 elections.

Republicans gained three seats in the Senate, boosting their majority to 30 out of the chamber's 46 seats, and all three of the candidates who unseated Democrats campaigned on promises to oppose abortion.

That could make it easier for the party to overcome Democratic objections and pass the so-called "Heartbeat Bill," which would make an abortion illegal in South Carolina if an ultrasound detects a fetal heartbeat. 

The House already approved the measure last year, and Republicans have since gained an additional seat in that chamber, too, bringing their total to 81.

While senators advanced the bill through the committee process, it never came up for a floor vote. Republican leaders said they didn't have enough votes to end Democratic filibusters, so the fight would be no more successful than a 2018 floor debate on abortion that ended with an early-morning vote to just move on to other business.

The end of the legislative session officially brought the bill's defeat. But similar legislation is certain to be filed for the session scheduled to start in January.  

About 55 percent of abortions in South Carolina are conducted after six weeks of gestation, according to 2019 data from the state’s health department.

Speaking to reporters Thursday outside his office, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster reiterated his previous promises to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

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"I think the additions to the Senate will make that more likely to happen," McMaster said.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he is not sure how all of his new members will vote on abortion legislation because he has yet to talk to them about it. 

"Right now, I just don't know where the votes are," Massey said. "You would think that with a larger conservative majority that it's more likely to have more conservative things get votes or get hearings now that they wouldn't have gotten before."

But Massey also said that he expects Democrats will seek to put up more roadblocks to passing the bill and may be "more difficult to deal with now."

The measure would likely prompt legal challenges if passed. But proponents say that is partly the point, as they have long sought to make the U.S. Supreme Court reconsider their prior rulings on the constitutionality of abortion access and are hopeful for a change with more conservative justices now on the bench.

Vicki Ringer, the regional public affairs director for Planned Parenthood, said South Carolina "needs real leadership now more than ever, not politicians pushing their own agendas." 

"In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and while South Carolina continues to rank among the worst in health care, anti-abortion politicians are once again choosing to focus their time and our tax dollars on limiting access to safe, legal abortion," she said. 

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.