COLUMBIA — A bill to ban most abortions in South Carolina moved to the brink of passage Wednesday in the state Senate over the fierce protests of Democratic lawmakers who excoriated the Republican majority for devoting hours of legislative time on that issue while the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the state.
In a key procedural step, the S.C. Senate voted 29-17 in favor of moving forward with the legislation to prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which typically occurs around six to eight weeks into pregnancies.
The bill's steady progress came despite impassioned objections from Democrats, who argued the state should be exclusively focused on battling the pandemic.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, revealed that his father had recently been hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus. As he sat by his father's bedside, Kimpson said he watched many more South Carolinians come in complaining of similar symptoms.
"COVID is running rampant through our state, and here we are in the General Assembly spending hours upon hours upon hours upon hours talking about an unconstitutional law on its face instead of talking about vaccines," Kimpson said.
More than 6,000 South Carolinians have now died from coronavirus complications, and the state continues to see high rates of new cases.
Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, added he suspects a majority of South Carolinians would not cite banning abortion as their top priority right now.
"The priority seems to me to be health care, education, broadband, the connectivity issue, not setting up a court case for five years from now, passing a bill that will probably never affect anybody's life in South Carolina because it'll never become law," Hutto said.
Republicans countered that they are still working to address the pandemic and distribute vaccines, insisting they can handle both issues simultaneously.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, noted that lawmakers held an oversight hearing on the first day of session to put pressure on the state health agency to speed up vaccine distribution "because we knew that was the No. 1 priority and we wanted to spend time on that."
By handling abortion now, Massey argued lawmakers would be able to clear a perennial issue off their desks so that they can keep their focus on the pandemic.
"I know this surprises a lot of people but we're able to walk and chew gum at the same time," Massey said. "We weren't going to spend weeks on this at a time. We thought we could knock it out in three days and that's what we're going to do."
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to sign the measure if it reaches his desk, a promise he reiterated in a news conference before the Senate began over two hours of debate.
But asked about criticism that the issue was diverting attention from the pandemic, McMaster said all the staff in the Governor's Office, as well as state officials outside his office, are working on addressing that crisis, including telephone conferences every morning.
"We are spending most of our time on the pandemic and we have been doing so for some months now, as you know, since it got here," McMaster said. "There are a lot of other important things going on. We just have to work a little harder, work a little faster and work a little longer every day — and we enjoy doing it."
The only Republican to vote against the bill was state Sen. Sandy Senn of Charleston, who said she believes it is unconstitutional. All Democrats voted against it.
The action teed up a final vote on the measure that is likely to come Thursday. If it passes, as expected, it will then move over to the House, which has already approved similar bills in previous legislative sessions and would be likely to do so again.
Close to a dozen conservative states have passed similar bills in recent years, each of which have been swiftly blocked by the courts.
But anti-abortion activists are hoping that, as more states take action, the increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court will feel pressured to reconsider the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that found women have a constitutional right to abortion access.
After adding exceptions for cases of rape and incest during Tuesday's first day of floor debate, lawmakers approved an additional amendment Wednesday that would allow for exceptions if a physician detects a fetal anomaly that would be fatal outside the womb.
Under current South Carolina law, abortions are prohibited 20 weeks after conception.