COLUMBIA — It appears there is a line even ardent abortion foes in the South Carolina Legislature won't cross.
The never-ending fight in the GOP-controlled General Assembly over halting abortions popped up again March 23 — but with a twist in the outcome, as Republicans publicly pleaded with their colleagues to defeat the proposal they said played politics with women's lives.
It came as the House debated its $10 billion state budget plan. The longest debate of the day over any amendment involved less than $10,000 the state health plan last paid out in 2019.
In South Carolina, public employees' insurance plan covers an abortion in three instances only: When a pregnancy results from rape or incest or if a doctor believes the mother's life is in jeopardy.
Since 2010, 16 abortions have been covered by those exceptions. The numbers are too small to provide an annual breakdown, according to the state's public benefits agency, though it did note no money was paid out last year.
But state Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville, wanted to strike every exception by prohibiting the state health plan from paying for an abortion ever, in any circumstance, starting on July 1.
"The circumstances of a person’s creation do not change the basic fact they are a human being. It’s not justice to respond to a horrible tragedy such as rape or incest by then punishing, even executing, the child conceived in that horrible act," he said from the podium.
"When something new or beautiful arises out of something that’s horrible, even dead, we don’t call it a mistake," he continued. "We don’t call it something we should pay for insurance to stop. We call it rebirth. We call it redemption. There are legends about this concept; we call it phoenix. We hold this up as something ideal, wonderful."
Most of his colleagues — Republican and Democrat — didn't see it that way, rejecting it with a vote of 68-14.
The outrage from Democrats was predictable. The vocal pushback from Republicans was not.
Just last month, the House voted 79-35 to send to Gov. Henry McMaster's desk a bill outlawing an abortion if an ultrasound detects a fetal heartbeat, which can occur as soon as six to eight weeks into a pregnancy.
Opponents argued that would ban an abortion before many women even know they are pregnant. But that was the point.
Also expected was the lawsuit filed as soon as McMaster signed the law, which blocked it from taking effect. Arguments that it would result in a lengthy, expensive court fight South Carolina likely won't win swayed no one. Advocates actually hope it ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Just two House Republicans voted against it.
Legislators debate abortion every year, often on multiple proposals that include budget fights.
But Rep. Micah Caskey, R-West Columbia, called Hill's proposal "too far for me."
The former assistant solicitor recalled prosecuting a "revolting and disgusting" case in 2013 involving an 11-year-old girl impregnated by her mother's boyfriend. The girl gave birth and put the child up for adoption, he said, explaining why he struggles with the rape and incest exceptions.
But there should be no question whatsoever in allowing health insurance to cover hospital costs involved in saving the mother's life, Caskey said.
"I cannot abide stripping away the most fundamental of all rights of self-defense," he said. "I can find no other instance you’d say to someone else, 'You can’t do what you need to do to protect yourself.'"
Hill's proposal caused flashbacks for Rep. Brian White, who stepped up to the podium after his fellow Anderson County Republican left.
The last time the House debated abortion as an employee insurance issue was 2010, when then-Rep. Joey Millwood, a Spartanburg County Republican, pounded the podium, repeating "we killed six babies" over and over, referring to the number of abortions covered by the health plan the year before.
The end result of that six-hour debate was a further tightening of the exceptions, defining what counts as sparing the mother from death or severe impairment, per her doctor's opinion.
White, who as a budget subcommittee chairman worked out that 2010 compromise, called it ludicrous to go down that path again.
In an impassioned, personal speech, the father of three daughters let it fly.
In his 21 years in the House, "not a year goes by we don’t do something with abortion. It becomes a political game, and then it pops up. Pictures will be taken. They’ll be posted. We’ll get yelled at and screamed at, saying we’re not pro-life," said White, referring to nasty GOP primary contests.
"Bull crap," he said, rattling off a list of anti-abortion measures passed by the chamber. "I get sick and tired every year of stuff popping up just for political gotcha here or there.
"We've taken a stance on abortion. Until you have answered the phone or sat with your wife or loved one who’s actually lost a child like I have, you’re just wrong," he continued. "This protects those women. You’re protecting the life of the mother.
"You’re saying now you can’t have those services ordered by a doctor and needed by the woman so we could have our third child. So I ask you to search deep down and realize exactly what you’re doing. This is health insurance," he said in wrapping up a speech that brought a round of applause.
And with that, the debate was over.
Anti-abortion proposals are sure to crop up again. And it's highly unlikely the March 23 vote will be replicated in the future. Even after the speeches made by Republicans who voted for the "fetal heartbeat" law, many of the chamber's all-time-high 81 GOP legislators chose not to vote at all.
But it was remarkable to watch.