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Free speech group targets abortion-ban proposal with billboards across SC

FIRE's abortion billboard

Drivers in Charleston, Greenville, Columbia and Myrtle Beach can see billboards like this starting Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. They are paid for by the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech. Provided

COLUMBIA — Billboards going up in response to a state senator's abortion-ban proposal aim to remind South Carolinians that the U.S. Constitution still protects their First Amendment right to talk about abortions. 

The billboards, which read "Speech about abortion is free speech," challenge a section in Sen. Richard Cash's bill that would make it a felony to help a pregnant woman get an abortion, to include providing information by phone, email "or any other mode of communication." Under his bill, which even his GOP colleagues oppose as extreme, that phone conversation could send someone to prison for up to 25 years. 

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression is spending more than $100,000 on 20 billboards in South Carolina as a first step to squash the idea nationwide. Drivers in Charleston, Greenville, Columbia and Myrtle Beach will see the billboards for four weeks, starting Aug. 15, FIRE spokespeople told The Post and Courier.

The timing coincides with a special session the Legislature's GOP majority created solely to consider an abortion ban.  

Cash's bill has received a lot of attention since he introduced it June 28, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned nearly 50 years of precedent on abortion rights and left the legality for state lawmakers to decide.

But it's not expected to get any traction.

"There's no support for doing something like that," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. "I haven't heard anybody express support for that. But I've heard a lot of people say, 'This is terrible.' Even people who are supportive of Cash's position on life are not supportive" of his bill.

Still, the free speech nonprofit hopes to stop the proposal from spreading to other states, regardless of its chances here. Billboard campaigns in other states could follow. 

"These proposals are a chilling attempt to stifle free speech," said Will Creeley, FIRE's legal director. "Whether you agree with abortion or not is irrelevant. You have the right to talk about it."

Cash's bill goes further than even the National Right to Life's model legislation, which the Anderson County Republican largely copied, with some tweaks.  

The wording promoted by the national anti-abortion group aims to outlaw communication on what's illegal, said Holly Gatling, director of the state affiliate, S.C. Citizens for Life. 

"In another context, it's illegal to provide information about when to rob a bank or bomb a car," she said. The language her group promotes does not, she added, refer to advocacy for abortion "protected by the First Amendment."  

What Cash intended is unclear. He did not return a call seeking comment from The Post and Courier. 

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FIRE is quick to note its billboards don't name a specific South Carolina bill. But Cash's proposal is the only one with the language they are targeting.  

The section criminalizing communication on how to get an abortion is not in the measure drafted by Rep. John McCravy and advanced by his 12-member panel last month. McCravy, one of the chamber's most strident abortion foes, stressed his recommendations also do not attempt to stop anyone from traveling to another state to get an abortion — as another piece of Cash's bill does, by making it a felony to help a pregnant teen under 18 cross state lines.     

"Such a law would be unconstitutional on its face," the Greenwood Republican said July 19 about barring travel between states, though he never mentioned Cash's bill. 

The measure from McCravy's panel will be the one moving through the Legislature, not Cash's. 

As sent to the House Judiciary Committee, it would ban nearly all abortions in South Carolina, allowing exceptions only to save the mother's life or prevent a serious, lifelong health problem. 

The debate this week in House Judiciary will likely center on whether to add exceptions for victims of rape or incest. The full House is expected to debate the bill in two weeks. 

Meanwhile, the Senate Medical Affairs Committee will take testimony Aug. 17 in what could be an all-day event. Another hearing may be needed to give everyone who wants to speak a chance.

The full Senate expects to return the first week of September to amend whatever the House sends.  

Cash, who has made outlawing abortions his primary focus since winning office in 2017, sits on the Medical Affairs Committee that will first amend the House bill. But so do Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto and GOP Sen. Sandy Senn, whose joint walk-out of a meeting earlier this year blocked another Cash abortion-ban measure.

"I wish no woman would have an abortion, but I think you can be pro-life and not be pro-forced birth, and that's what Senator Cash and others want to do," said Senn, R-Charleston, calling Cash's latest proposal "ridiculously overbroad."  

She is the only Republican senator who voted against the 2021 law that banned abortions once an ultrasound detects cardiac activity, which occurs as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. That law had been blocked by federal courts but took effect soon after the U.S. Supreme Court made the challenge moot.   

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.