COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House's GOP majority doubled down Tuesday on trying to stop a single tax dollar from going to abortion provider Planned Parenthood — even while a similar effort last year remains blocked in federal court.
Republicans voted 84-31 to add a clause in the state's $9 billion spending plan that amounted to an empty gesture since no state taxes are used directly or indirectly to pay for abortions at the two Planned Parenthood clinics in South Carolina.
"There seems no method to the madness. It used to be about abortion. Now it's about Planned Parenthood. Why do we keep doing this?" said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. "It is simply politics."
There's a fight over abortion every year in the GOP-dominated South Carolina Statehouse, as abortion foes have consistently sought to restrict access. Tuesday marked the first abortion debate this year.
At least eight abortion-related bills have been introduced in the General Assembly and another proposal is expected Wednesday. Some proposals would ban abortion outright, ban it once a heartbeat is detected or ban a specific procedure, but no public hearings have been held yet.
That's partly due to a debate among GOP senators over which anti-abortion legislation to prioritize.
But it also comes down to basic math in the Senate. When it comes to abortion, measures pushed through by House Republicans tend to get stuck in the Senate, where chamber rules make it virtually impossible to pass divisive issues without compromise from opponents.
That deadlock does not stop lengthy abortion debates in the General Assembly. House members deliberated over the Planned Parenthood proposal for three hours.
South Carolina doesn't send any state money to Planned Parenthood. The organization has received between $32,000 and $83,000 yearly in Medicaid reimbursements for family planning services such as birth control, prenatal care and annual exams. None of that money paid for abortions, according to reports by the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.
Still, Gov. Henry McMaster directed the state's Medicaid agency last year to take Planned Parenthood off its provider rolls, as a direct attempt at blocking any tax money from reaching the organization. The state is appealing a judge's ruling against it.
Rep. Krystle Simmons, D-Ladson, took to the House floor Tuesday to say how the annual demonizing of Planned Parenthood hurts her personally.
"I have used their services to get training and formula, and food sometimes, when I couldn't afford it," said the mother of five. "Medicaid will allow family planning centers to teach us what we need to know as young mothers. While we sit back and toss this ball back and forth, we need to be mindful of all the good Planned Parenthood does."
The abortion fight will continue Wednesday when Sen. Richard Cash, R-Piedmont, is expected to introduce legislation banning public colleges in South Carolina from using aborted fetal tissue in medical research. A 2016 report from a congressional panel examining Planned Parenthood cited the University of South Carolina as among more than 20 colleges that purchased tissue from the University of Washington.
But USC officials say they that's not happening. An extensive records review found just one, $200 invoice from 2009 labeled "tissue samples" from the Washington lab. No other purchases have been made from the lab, and USC is not conducting research on human fetal tissue, according to the school.
And some Senate Republicans continue to push for Cash's legislation that outlaws all abortions — except in cases of rape, incest and saving the mother's life. Others want to focus on a bill banning an abortion once a heartbeat is detected.
The chances of any of the measures passing this year are slim.
The all-out ban came close last year to passing in the Senate, where chamber rules allow for a single senator to hold up a vote. Senators can vote to end a filibuster and force a vote, but they're generally reluctant to sit a colleague down.
Cash, who's made fighting abortion his central focus, continues to fight for his so-called "personhood" measure, which extends legal rights to an embryo.
"It simply states that from the earliest time that a human life begins, which is fertilization, you can't kill a human being," Cash said. "That is what I am pushing. That is what I'm always going to push for as long as I'm here."
But the Senate's even less able to end a filibuster this year, with its GOP majority depleted.
Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, replaced a long-time Republican in a special election last November, and one seat remains open after then-Sen. Will Timmons won a seat in Congress.
Even if Republicans voted in lock step, they would have just a one-vote majority. That's not enough for such contentious legislation, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
"If anything, we are in a worse mathematical position this year than we were in last year," he said.
A similar "heartbeat" measure passed the Georgia House last week. But so far, there's been no public hearing in South Carolina on any anti-abortion bill, even amid a GOP backlash nationally against pro-choice laws passed or at least debated elsewhere.
McMaster, the de facto leader of the state Republican party, touted his anti-abortion stances prominently in his election last year and pledged to a ban on abortion at a news conference last month.
Anti-abortion activists point to a consistent drop in abortions since the state's all-time high of 14,133 in 1988, crediting a series of anti-abortion laws dating to 1990. In 2017, there were 5,112 abortions in South Carolina, the lowest number since 1975, according to the latest data from the state's public health agency.
"We’ve been doing a slow steady job, but we’ve been saving lives," said Holly Gatling, director of South Carolina Citizens for Life, who was recently awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian honor, by McMaster.
Gatling said she doesn't expect much action this year since it's the first of a two-year session. Proposals not passed this year will carry over to 2020, when every legislator faces re-election.
Legislation re-introduced this year in the House would ban a method abortion foes call "dismemberment."
The second-trimester method, medically called “dilation and evacuation,” accounted for 0.03 percent, or 16, of all abortions in South Carolina in 2017, the most recent year state statistics are available. The bill passed the House in 2017. It's the bill that died last year after the Senate changed it to the Cash's all-out ban.
The "heartbeat" bill, newly introduced in both the House and Senate, would require a woman at least eight weeks pregnant to be told a heartbeat may exist and ban an abortion if a heartbeat is detected. Similar laws passed in three other states have been blocked by state or federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has so far declined to take up the issue.
Legislation is sure to get a bigger push next year by Republicans seeking to tout their anti-abortion cred to GOP primary voters.
The last major anti-abortion law sent to the governor's desk was in 2016, which also happens to be the last time senators faced voters' ire. That law banned abortion at 20 weeks beyond fertilization, unless the mother’s life is in jeopardy or a doctor determines the fetus can’t survive outside the womb.
Andy Shain contributed to this report.