The South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee meets on Tuesday to debate the Personhood Act, which would effectively ban abortions in the state. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — A bill that would effectively ban all abortions in South Carolina has cleared a critical hurdle in the state Senate, boosting a proposal that has been a top priority of social conservatives for years over the strenuous objections of reproductive health advocates.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill Tuesday on a 12-9 vote after two hours of heated debate, advancing the measure to the full Senate floor.

Known as the Personhood Act, the bill would set the legal definition of human life as beginning at fertilization and extend constitutional protections to all unborn children. 

Critics fear the bill could endanger the lives of mothers and criminalize fertility treatment, pointing out it makes no exceptions for extreme cases.

The measure does not offer an exemption for cases of rape or incest, even if the rape victim is a child.

If passed by the Senate, the bill would still have to move through the House. Gov. Henry McMaster has pledged to sign the legislation if it makes it to his desk.

"I believe that human life begins at conception, and I believe the people of South Carolina deserve for their laws to reflect the values they hold dear," McMaster said in a statement applauding the committee's vote.

Similar bills have failed in other conservative states, and the measure has fallen short multiple times in South Carolina before. The state passed a law in 2016 that outlaws abortions after 20 weeks.

Tuesday's meeting got off to a tense start, even before the panel moved on to the substance of the bill. Lead sponsor Sen. Richard Cash, R-Piedmont, began circulating a new amendment that opponents complained they were not given a chance to review.

Over the next two hours, lawmakers bickered repeatedly over the bill, with several Democrats labeling it reckless. Cash defended the measure as a simple matter of protecting human lives.

Some doctors have voiced concerns the measure does not include any exceptions for situations when the life of the mother is in danger, warning it could create a "nightmare scenario" in which doctors have to choose between saving the mother or "murdering" the embryo.

Cash argued no one would prosecute doctors if they take medical actions to save the mother's life that result in the unintentional death of a child.

He additionally defended the prospective law's abortion restrictions in cases of rape or incest, including when the victim is a child.

"If a child is raped, yes, that is a horrible act," Cash said when pressed by a colleague. "Two wrongs don’t make a right. You cannot erase the rape by killing the child. The child is an innocent person."

Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, asked Cash if he had ever been raped or been pregnant. He responded that he would not entertain "facetious" questions.

Several Democrats sought to slow the measure down and send it back to subcommittee for further consideration.

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"We don’t need to be cavalier in pushing this out for political purposes,” said Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, warning that doing so could have “grave or catastrophic results.”

Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, said that further committee debate on a bill that has been introduced many times over the years would be a waste of time.

"I don’t think anyone’s mind is going to be changed at this point," Timmons said.

At one point, committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Conway, had to remind the senators to "please, keep it civil." The entreaty hardly made a difference.

The only Republican not to vote for the measure was Sen. Sandy Senn of Charleston, who abstained because she said she did not want to vote against a pro-life bill but had concerns that the current version of the legislation is unconstitutional.

Senn bemoaned that the measure comes up every year and always takes up significant time in committee.

“We need to move on to other important business of the state," she said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.