COLUMBIA — After another contentious debate, the South Carolina House approved a bill Wednesday that would ban most abortions in the state, but the legislation stands little to no chance of making it into law this year.
The 70 to 31 vote followed more than five hours of heated back-and-forth between supporters and opponents of the bill, a dispute that has become a predictable annual hallmark of South Carolina's legislative session.
The bill, H.3020, would make it illegal to receive an abortion in South Carolina after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which occurs after around five to eight weeks in most pregnancies. About two-thirds of abortions in South Carolina are conducted after six weeks of gestation, according to 2017 data from the state’s health department.
"What this bill is going to do is effectively end access to abortion before these women even find out they’re pregnant," said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, a leading opponent to the measure.
Republican supporters of the bill remained undeterred by Democratic efforts to effectively filibuster the debate for hours with a litany of amendment proposals.
"I'd be willing to stay here all night and bring in a cot," said state Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood, the bill's lead sponsor. "There's no higher priority than life."
Because the bill passed the House late in the first year of the legislative session, which is set to end in May, the Senate would need a supermajority two-thirds vote to even bring the bill up for debate on the floor.
But House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, noted that it is a two-year session, meaning the Senate could consider it next year.
"Whether the Senate takes it up this year or next year, every time the House has passed something, we move closer to the goal of protecting life," said Simrill, who has participated in dozens of abortion debates as a member of the House for more than two decades.
The proposal fits into a broader movement in conservative states to severely restrict access to abortions.
Georgia’s state legislature narrowly passed a version of the bill last month, and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign it into law. Governors in Mississippi and Kentucky have already signed such measures into law in recent months.
But courts have repeatedly struck down the legislation as unconstitutional, halting the measure in Kentucky, Iowa and North Dakota, due to U.S. Supreme Court precedent that women have the right to receive an abortion and restrictions cannot place an “undue burden” on them.
With little hope of the bill passing the Senate, some Democrats dismissed the whole debate as pointless, saying it is only intended to create soundbites for reelection campaigns.
"This waste of time is sickening to me," said state Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston. "We go through this every year and the bottom line is it's a woman's body and it's her right to choose."
Lawmakers agreed to a proposed amendment from state Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, to add an exception for cases of rape or incest. But some of her fellow Republicans argued that exception risks punishing unborn children for actions out of their control and anything short of a total ban would be insufficient.
"If the victim of the rape should not be blamed, then why should the product of the rape be blamed?" asked state Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, questioned why supporters of the bill haven't pushed for other ways to protect born children, like increasing funding for the state's Department of Social Service that oversees foster care placements.
"Don't pretend you care about children," Rutherford said. "You only care about a political issue."