COLUMBIA — A bill to ban most abortions in South Carolina took yet another step closer to passage on Feb. 9, advancing out of a House committee on party lines to set up one final debate on the House floor before the Republican majority almost certainly approves it.
After around 2½ hours of debate, mostly featuring lengthy denunciations from Democrats who slammed the proposal as an affront to women's freedom, the House Judiciary Committee voted 15-8 in favor of what sponsors call the "fetal heartbeat" bill, which would ban abortions after around six to eight weeks of pregnancy.
Though the arguments were tense at times, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that they amount to little more than going through the legislative motions at this point, with few if any House members undecided on how they are going to vote.
Similar bills have already passed the S.C. House multiple times before in years past but were held up in the Senate, where Democrats managed to block them through extensive filibusters. That changed this year after Democrats lost three Senate seats in the 2020 election. The Senate passed the bill last month.
The House could approve the abortion limits as early as next week. Gov. Henry McMaster has pledged to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said passage of the bill is now effectively inevitable, a fact she said would be clear to anyone who knows how to count.
"There's nothing that Democrats can do to stop it," Cobb-Hunter said. "We all know that the fetal heartbeat bill will pass based on the numbers in the House and the Senate. Elections have consequences, and passage of this bill is one of the consequences of November's elections."
That didn't stop Democrats from spending hours speaking up against the bill, pointing out that most members of the committee, and the chamber more broadly, are men who would never have to grapple with the decision of whether or not to go forward with a pregnancy.
Critics of the proposal also note that many women may not realize they are pregnant after just six weeks.
"I believe abortion is a decision a woman should make with her family, her doctor, but not her legislators," said state Rep. Spencer Wetmore, D-Folly Beach.
State Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, bemoaned that other legislative business "has been bogged down again by a bill that we all know will do absolutely nothing but cost millions of dollars in taxpayer money."
"In the midst of a pandemic where people and businesses are already hurting, with people out of work, this is what we choose to prioritize?" Rose added. "I think it's extremely tone deaf and very, very disappointing."
State Rep. John McCravy, the Greenwood Republican who has long championed efforts to pass abortion bans in the House, said supporters know the bill will face legal challenges but are hopeful that lawsuits will prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the boundaries they have set on the issue.
In the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, the court found that women have a constitutional right to access abortions, a precedent they have upheld multiple times with some restrictions.
Many legal experts are skeptical that the high court, even with more conservative justices added in recent years, will be receptive to even taking up the case, let alone deciding in favor of abortion opponents. They have yet to take up less extreme measures, including a 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi.
"It hasn't persuaded the court so far," said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond. "They haven't shown much appetite for overturning Roe or taking those cases. So maybe this will add fuel to the fire, but I think that's mostly a political argument."
Tobias said the case will likely cost the state millions of dollars in attorney fees and take multiple years to wind through the courts. Close to a dozen other states have passed similar bills that are now all tied up in legal challenges.
Democrats proposed four amendments, including ones to require the state to bear financial responsibility for children of women denied abortions or to delay the effective date of the bill to when the Supreme Court rules on a different state's bill. All were voted down, mostly along party lines.