COLUMBIA — Less than a week after it passed through the South Carolina Senate, a bill to ban most abortions in the state began its legislative journey through the House on Feb. 3 with a subcommittee hearing that featured almost four hours of emotional testimony from both supporters and opponents of the measure.
The so-called "fetal heartbeat" bill, which would ban abortions after around six to eight weeks of pregnancy, appears headed toward likely passage in the Republican-dominated Legislature, as even leading Democratic critics of it acknowledge that it already has more than enough votes for a majority.
But that didn't discourage dozens of South Carolinians from attending either in person or virtually to testify in three-minute spurts about the bill, including several who said they had already testified many times before in years past, in what likely will be their last chance to do so before it heads toward likely court challenges.
The subcommittee ultimately voted 3-2 along party lines to advance the bill. It is expected to get a full committee hearing next week before moving on to the House floor for a vote by the full chamber soon afterward.
Republican Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette testified that, by supporting the bill, she hoped the state would "end up on the right side of history." Gov. Henry McMaster has repeatedly promised to sign the bill if it makes it to his desk.
"If we're using the heartbeat as the scientific test for when our life ends, I think it only makes good sense that we use it for determining when our life begins," said Evette, who also testified before a Senate panel on the bill.
Susan Dunn, the longtime legal director of the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that several states that passed similar bills saw courts swiftly strike them down as unconstitutional.
"All in the world you would be doing for the citizens of South Carolina is buying a lawsuit," Dunn said.
Most supporters of the bill acknowledge it will initially get struck down by lower courts but say they are hoping those cases will prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that found women have a constitutional right to abortion access.
Hayden Tomlin, an Ireland native who said he moved to South Carolina about three years ago, warned that his country's experience show the complications abortion bans can cause. Ireland banned abortions until 2019, but Tomlin said it just forced many women to travel to other jurisdictions, like England, to procure them.
"The heartbreaking, lonely travel of these women into a foreign land to have a traumatic procedure done in secrecy," Tomlin said, "is truly a shame and a blight on my country's history."
Holly Gatling, the executive director of the anti-abortion S.C. Citizens for Life, encouraged the lawmakers to approve the bill in the same form that passed the Senate without amending it in any way.
That would quicken the process because it would avoid the need for House and Senate negotiators to convene and reconcile their differences. On a policy level, it would also mean that the bill would continue to include exceptions for cases of rape or incest, which some Republicans oppose.
One of the more controversial provisions added in the Senate would require physicians to provide the name and contact information of women who receive an abortion due to the rape or incest exception to the local sheriff.
Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano, the only female sheriff in the state, decried that proposal, warning it would "revictimize the victim." Republican supporters of it said they hoped it would help the state combat violent crime.