Gubernatorial hopefuls discuss abortion policy

All seven gubernatorial candidates take the stage for a live debate May 18 in Columbia. From left are Lt. Gov Andre Bauer; U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett; state Attorney Gen. Henry McMaster; state Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington; state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Ca

Mary Ann Chastain

COLUMBIA -- Limiting abortions and approving death sentences, two of the most emotional issues faced by governors of South Carolina, point to some of the clearest differences between the Republicans and Democrats competing to run the state.

The GOP candidates, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, state Rep. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Henry McMaster, all say they would sign a bill outlawing abortion should the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturn the 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

"I'm strongly pro-life, very pro-life and not because my party tells me to be, but my husband was adopted, and so every day I know the blessings of having him there," said Haley, a 38-year-old Lexington mother of two serving her third House term. "That's a personal thing for me."

Two Democrats, state education Superintendent Jim Rex and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, said they would rather focus on ways to reduce abortions. A third Democrat, state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, who is single, avoids the question entirely, saying that in matters of law he would approve virtually anything the Legislature passed: "The governor ain't got nothing to do with that."

Rex, who is in his first term as schools chief, said South Carolina needs to get serious about educating young people about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, not limit sex education to abstinence and expand counseling services.

"I do believe a woman has to have a choice. I don't want to see us throwing other South Carolinians in jail if they choose to make that kind of choice," said Rex, a 68-year-old former college president and father of four living in Winnsboro.

Rex and Sheheen said adoptions should be made easier.

"There's nothing wrong with us trying to promote opportunities for women to carry their pregnancy to term, and that's really what the state should be more involved in, things like having adoptions work better," said Sheheen, a 38-year-old Camden lawyer and father of three who first was elected to the Legislature in 2000.

Abortion takes a central role in legislative debates year after year in this conservative state.

Barrett, a 49-year-old, four-term congressman and father of three, said he's always supported only three reasons why abortions should be covered by government health plans: rape, incest and protecting the mother's life.

Bauer, who is single, said he would support whatever a woman chooses in those scenarios, "because I will never know what it's like to be raped or have incest and have to carry that child."

McMaster, a 63-year-old father of two in his second term as top prosecutor, said many families are eager to adopt. While he said he understands the argument that a woman who has to see a pregnancy through after rape or incest is further victimized, he thinks women may lie: "Someone will say this happened or that happened, when it didn't."

As for the death penalty, the four Republicans and two Democrats said they support it for the worst offenders. Ford said he'd never thought about it as an issue and would have to do a lot of praying if he were ever asked to commute a sentence.

Rex said he would insist that DNA testing be done before any executions are scheduled if he becomes governor, if the evidence is available.

Sheheen said he might reconsider a sentence if, generally, there's any question of guilt.

Bauer said he'd rather a committee make that final decision, not the governor, but he would weigh each case.

Though he said he supports the death penalty, Barrett called it an issue that would weigh heavily on him as being the final judge and jury.

Haley, on the other hand, said matter-of-factly and without hesitation that she'd uphold the sentence. "I don't think you'd see me get very soft on those issues at all," she said.

McMaster already confers with the governor on executions, and so far, he notes, each one during his two terms has proceeded. He says it's a deterrent and the only way to bring victims' families closure to their ordeal.