Abortion hearing

Lacey Layne, an educator from the Upstate, testifies at a S.C. Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee hearing on the "fetal heartbeat" abortion ban bill on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — In December 2017, Lacey Layne was pregnant with a second child she planned to name Evan. Everything was going fine, she said, until an ultrasound in the middle of her second trimester revealed a critical brain defect. 

"I chose to end the pregnancy to avoid the possibility of my baby knowing only a short life outside of my body filled with pain," said Layne, an educator from the Upstate. "I chose peace for Evan because it was the best decision for him, myself, my husband and his big brother."

Layne said she could not even imagine the "emotional turmoil" she would have faced if she had been forced to carry the baby to term due to restrictive abortion laws. Now, she fears that fate could befall other women across South Carolina.

"I shouldn't have to share my personal experience with strangers in hopes that those who don't already know it will finally realize that abortion is health care," Layne said. "But here I am fighting on behalf of all women for basic health care rights. Nobody should have this personal decision made for them by politicians."

Tony Foster, senior pastor of Restoration Worship Center in Greenwood, said he has counseled many women in his church over the years who have been traumatized by their experiences with abortion, and he particularly singled out the number of African American pregnancies that have been terminated.

"I call this a genocide," Foster said. "As an African American man, I take it very seriously that we are having an atrocity in our community."

South Carolina's long-running abortion debate returned with as much intensity as ever Tuesday to the Statehouse, where lawmakers heard hours of emotional testimony intensify over a "fetal heartbeat" proposal to outlaw the procedure in most cases.

The bill, H.3020, would ban most abortions in South Carolina after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which typically happens around six weeks into a pregnancy. 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.

The S.C. House passed the bill earlier this year, moving it over to the Senate. Now, Senate Republicans are hoping to move the legislation through the committee process so they can get it on the floor for a full Senate vote early in the 2020 legislative session.

The only exception to the initial bill was if the life of the mother is in danger. Additional exceptions in cases of rape and incest were tacked on during debate on the House floor. 

Eight states so far have already passed similar bills, but all have been held up in court due to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. The legal roadblocks have not deterred the proposal's supporters, who are eager to put South Carolina on the front lines of the national conflict.

They argue that the increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court could decide to change the standard of viability from around 24 weeks, when a fetus could live outside the womb, to the six-week heartbeat threshold.

"I would like us as a state to be a part of that litigation to protect the lives of the unborn," said state Rep. John McCravy, a Greenwood Republican sponsoring the bill, when pressed by Democrats.

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Many of the arguments on either side have become deeply familiar to lawmakers, who engage in some form of an abortion debate almost every session. Holly Gatling, executive director of S.C. Citizens for Life, said she had lost count of the number of times she has testified at the Statehouse about the same issue over the years.

But the sense of déjà vu at Tuesday's hearing did not lessen the fervor on both sides.

Sixty people spoke about their views on the polarizing issue, approximately 30 for each side — and that number would have been higher had it not been for limits imposed by the committee. Speakers included several doctors, pastors, lawyers and activists on either side of the issue, with tears flowing at times as sexual assault victims retold their stories.

Yet the rhetorical battles remain unlikely to sway many lawmakers, most of whom already are deeply dug in on one side of the issue or the other. While most of Tuesday's hearing was focused on public input, occasional comments from senators indicated that the traditional partisan breakdown on the issue has not changed at all.

The debate drew interest from several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, who have been vigorously competing for S.C. primary voters. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and former Vice President Joe Biden all commented publicly in opposition to the bill.

"As leaders of a state that falls in the bottom tier in both infant and maternal mortality rates — which disproportionately impacts communities of color — it's time to start listening to South Carolina women and public health experts and prioritizing the health and safety of women, instead of finding new ways to criminalize them," Warren said.

The subcommittee's Republican chairman, state Sen. Shane Martin of Pauline, said they would wait to vote on the bill until a later meeting but the bill could find its way to the Senate floor when the session starts in January.

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.