Personhood hearing (copy)

A S.C. Senate hearing room was packed in 2018 for a bill that would outlaw abortion in the state. A large crowd is expected Tuesday for a hearing on a bill that would ban abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected. Seanna Adcox/Staff

Few subjects generate as much passion in the South Carolina Statehouse as abortion.

Anti-abortion activists are regular fixtures in the Statehouse lobby, standing next to a stroller with a baby doll on a spot where all lawmakers walk past.

Democratic legislators have filibustered for hours to stop bills that would curb abortions. 

On Tuesday, another big moment arrives in the volatile debate.

Sixty people have signed up to speak during a four-hour Senate subcommittee hearing that could help decide if South Carolina joins several states, including Georgia and Ohio, in banning abortions at the detection of a fetus' heartbeat, usually after six weeks.

The S.C. House passed the bill by a wide majority in late April. The key vote went 70-31.

The Senate did not take up the bill since just two weeks were left in the 2019 session, but the Legislature operates on two-year cycles, giving the latest abortion limit another year to win approval.

The Senate Medical Affairs Committee is jump-starting the fetal-heartbeat debate four months before the 2020 session starts.

Since the legislative session was shortened in 2017, more committee work is being done in off-months so more bills have a chance to get passed.

Taking testimony on Tuesday is a likely first step to getting the bill passed through the committee this fall so it is ready for a full Senate vote when the session starts in January.

A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, which operates two of South Carolina's three abortion clinics, said not enough time is being spent on a bill that would essentially ban all abortions because many mothers don't know if they are pregnant after six weeks and would cost state taxpayers millions to defend in court.

"This is absolutely rushed," said Vicki Ringer, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood in South Carolina. "No one is expecting this hearing during the fall."

The bill debate comes as all 170 seats in the Statehouse are up for election in 2020.

"This is about making a political statement to satisfy a small but vocal minority that wants to ban abortion," said Ringer, adding that passing the bill would hurt poor women who could not afford to go to another state for an abortion.

The fetal heartbeat proposal is moving forward with the help of the Senate's most strident abortion foes. Sen. Shane Martin, R-Pauline, is leading the subcommittee that includes Sen. Richard Cash, a Piedmont Republican who often takes to the Senate floor to argue against abortion. 

"I will do nothing more important in my public service than work to protect innocent life," Martin said. "I would hold hearings at midnight on New Year's Day in communist China, if I thought it would save unborn babies."

Even though Republicans hold a 27-19 edge in the Senate, questions remain whether the latest abortion bill has enough support to head to Gov. Henry McMaster's desk.

A bill that would have ended all abortions in South Carolina failed to get a vote in the Senate in 2018 after a lengthy filibuster by Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston. Republicans could not muster enough votes to sit down Kimpson. They gave up since his filibuster was preventing votes on other legislation. 

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Senate GOP leaders won't know if they have the 26 votes necessary to halt debate on the bill until they have a caucus meeting at the end of the year. There is little interest in another defeat.

"We saw that movie a couple of years ago," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said. "If you don't have the votes to makes it happen, you don't want embarrass yourself."

And while Republican leaders say the heartbeat bill is a priority, there are other top issues to consider in the five-month session.

The Senate is expected to take up a massive education overhaul package when it returns in January, and the potential sale of state-owned utility Santee Cooper needs to be resolved before the Legislature begins annual budget negotiations. 

"We can have this hearing, and 10 more if we want, and still have plenty of time to tell teachers and parents that this time, really, Columbia will solve your problems," Martin said. "I am certain that unborn children facing an early death don't see off-session hearings as a waste of time or a low priority or a meaningless gesture."

States that have passed fetal heartbeat abortion bans have been blocked from enacting them because of temporary or permanent court orders. Georgia's law goes into effect next year, but opponents have filed objections in court.

S.C. Republican leaders say the state should not stay on the sidelines.

"This is South Carolina," Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said. "We're going to be part of the debate."

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