Opponents put up roadblock to Senate vote on 20-week abortion bill

Anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in Charleston in 2008. A bill that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy cleared a Senate committee Thursday, but a procedural roadblock could keep it from a vote on the Senate floor.

COLUMBIA — A bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy cleared committee on Thursday, but procedural roadblocks would need to be lifted before it could be voted on by the full Senate.

Dubbed the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, the bill would shorten the amount of time that abortions are legal in South Carolina, which supporters say is necessary because they contend fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks. Currently, abortions are legal through 24 weeks unless necessary to save the mother’s life.

The Senate Medical Affairs Committee was split Thursday on making exceptions to the ban. It passed amendments by a single vote to allow abortions for victims of rape and incest and for mothers whose babies have “severe fetal anomalies” that would prevent them from surviving.

While the committee passed the bill on a 9-6 vote, a procedural hold known as a minority report could keep it from a vote by the full Senate. Supporters need a two-thirds vote to get a special order to bring it up for debate.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, placed a hold on the bill, saying it would infringe on women’s reproductive rights.

Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, countered that while the committee discussed mothers’ rights, he wanted to advocate for “the child that does not have a voice.”

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, who chairs the Medical Affairs Committee, said he expects the bill’s supporters will try for a special order, but he’s not sure yet if they’ll be successful. Only a handful of bills can get special orders each year.

The 20-week issue is not a new one in the Legislature. A similar bill died on the Senate floor last year after being passed by the House and clearing a Senate committee. The House has already approved the measure this year.

Abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy are rare in South Carolina. Only around 30 are performed in the state each year, Hutto said. That’s less than 1 percent of the nearly 6,400 abortions that were performed in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hutto said the small number shows that women getting abortions that far along in pregnancy get them out of necessity. After 20 weeks, most women decide to keep their baby, so choosing to abort after that is a “very, very tough decision,” he said.

But Sen. Daniel Verdin, R-Laurens, said the number of abortions the ban would prevent is irrelevant, because, he said, they cause “excruciating pain.”

“This is not a ledger sheet,” he said.