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SC House puts abortion ban on path for governor's desk despite Democrats' staged protest

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COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House passed a strict bill to ban most abortions in the state on Feb. 17, sending the measure on a path to Gov. Henry McMaster's desk, where it likely will become law as early as Feb. 18. 

The House Republican majority overrode the objections of Democrats, who dramatically walked out of the chamber at the beginning of the debate before later returning.

The 79-35 vote sets the bill up to clear a final procedural hurdle on Feb. 18 and send it to McMaster, who has repeatedly vowed to sign it into law. Top lawmakers in the Senate and House are planning to ratify the act shortly after it passes so McMaster can sign it as soon as that day.

That will kick off certain legal challenges, following the playbook of close to a dozen states that have passed similar bills, all of which have been held up in the courts. The legislation, known by supporters as the "fetal heartbeat" bill, would ban abortions after around six to eight weeks of a pregnancy.

Though the bill will not take effect unless those court cases are resolved, state Rep. John McCravy, the Greenwood Republican who has championed the effort for years, said the overwhelming vote sends a message to the U.S. Supreme Court and beyond that a majority of South Carolinians want to crack down on abortion.

"It's encouraging to all the pro-life people who are out there, and it tells the rest of the nation that we stand for life," McCravy said. "We want to save as many lives as possible, and the quicker this is passed, the quicker it will go into effect."

The vote followed an impassioned day of legislative theatrics, featuring multiple lawmakers from both parties storming out of the chamber at various points, only to return later after colleagues invoked obscure parliamentary rules compelling them to attend.

Dozens of Democrats walked out of the South Carolina House chamber as the debate began, saying they would refuse to participate in a process they view as fundamentally flawed by debating or voting on the bill.

"We do not have time to debate unconstitutional abortion bans," S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said. "Providing COVID relief and improving the vaccination rollout should be our priority right now."

But after a news conference detailing their opposition to the bill, most of them returned to the floor hours later to speak and vote against it.

"Today is a sad day," state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, said in the news conference. "It's a very sad day, and all I can do is continue to pray for the state of South Carolina, pray for our women and pray for our families."

Two Democrats, state Reps. Russell Ott of St. Matthews and Lucas Atkinson of Marion, voted for the bill. Two Republicans, state Rep. William Cogswell of Charleston and Jerry Carter of Clemson, voted against it.

During the period that most Democrats were out of the chamber, Republicans began wiping out all of their amendment proposals and moving the bill toward passage. Dozens of lawmakers went on to deliver lengthy speeches for and against the bill, prolonging the debate by several hours.

The Senate passed the bill last month, as Republicans capitalized on their expanded majority in that chamber to overcome Democratic objections that had blocked their efforts to pass similar bills in previous years.

The House already approved a similar measure by a 70-31 vote in 2019, prompting both Republicans and Democrats alike to acknowledge that it was inevitably going to pass again in 2021.

A small handful of Democrats remained in the House chamber throughout the debate, including state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving member.

"You love the fetus in the womb, but when it's born is when we get a different reaction," Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, told Republicans, saying she was tired of continuing to debate abortion bills repeatedly over the years.

Freshman state Rep. Kimberly Johnson, D-Manning, chided her colleagues for walking out, saying that if Democrats are going to leave during debate of every bill they disagree with, "there is no need to drive to Columbia every day."

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Demonstrators hold signs during a press conference by Democrats, who walked out during debate on an abortion ban bill in the S.C. House in Columbia, Feb. 17, 2021. Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier

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"Walking out is not the answer," Johnson said. "You need to be heard, and you need to make sure your constituents are heard."

In a teary speech, state Rep. Melissa Oremus recounted how friends had encouraged her to get an abortion when she got pregnant at 16. But Oremus, R-Aiken, said that after hearing a heartbeat at her ultrasound, she realized that she "had a human being inside of me."

Anti-abortion activists say their goal is to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse or at least significantly amend their landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which found that women have a constitutional right to abortion access with some restrictions.

So far, the high court has shown some reluctance to consider drastic abortion bans. The justices have yet to take up a Mississippi law that would prohibit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a less extreme measure than the South Carolina bill. 

The South Carolina law includes a few exceptions for cases of rape or incest, if the life of the mother is in danger or if the fetus has a fatal anomaly that would render it nonviable outside the womb. 

The rape or incest exception includes a provision that would require physicians to report those cases to the local sheriff and the state health agency, including the name and contact information of the woman.

That measure drew condemnation from South Carolina's lone female sheriff, Charleston County's Kristin Graziano, who argued it would re-traumatize rape victims.

South Carolina's current law bans abortions after around 20 weeks, but it ties the fetus’ age to conception, rather than a woman’s monthly cycle. Since this date cannot be scientifically pinpointed, the ban actually refers to what doctors consider a gestational age of 22 weeks.

About an hour before the House convened, a small group of protestors rallied in front of the Statehouse building, urging lawmakers to reject the bill.

"They're trying to push this bill through while everything is really loud right now, hoping people won't be paying attention," said Anika Roldan, an 18-year-old from Irmo. "I just want it to get to a point where we're loud enough so that they hear what we're saying."

Holding large banners that read "Laws Off My Body," "Abortion is Healthcare" and "We Won't Go Back," several rallygoers were only willing to give their first names — a nod, they said, to the requirements that would be placed upon women to reveal personal information about themselves in cases of incest and rape.

"We really just want to show our force and solidarity with women in South Carolina and across America," said a woman who identified herself only as Amy. "What's happening in that building isn't right."

The bill also drew some pushback from the right, as conservative groups urged lawmakers to strip the exceptions from the bill. 

But other anti-abortion groups and GOP leaders opposed changing it because they feared it would slow down the process by forcing the House and Senate to reach an agreement before the bill could become law.

State Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville, encouraged Republicans to change the bill and make it a complete abortion ban. After his colleagues voted to cut off the amendment process, he threw a stack of papers on to the House floor and stormed out of the chamber.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, scolded Hill for the "childish" display and said security would remove any members who acted similarly. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said lawmakers could censure Hill, but he said they were wary of giving him an opportunity to frame himself as a "martyr."

"The public is now getting to see what the body’s already seen," Simrill said. "Sophomoric antics."

Adam Benson contributed to this report from Columbia. Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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