Senators OK new limits on abortion

Rebecca Kiessling speaks to reporters on Tuesday at the South Carolina Statehouse. A proponent of an abortion ban without exemptions, Kiessling was conceived through rape.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers voted Tuesday to tighten restrictions on abortions — prohibiting the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy — overcoming a leading abortion foe’s vow to block exceptions for rape, incest and severe fetal abnormalities.

Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, had threatened a filibuster to block a vote on the bill, but senators outmaneuvered him by voting, instead, to end debate on the bill. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, another abortion foe, said that strategy was adopted after the state’s largest anti-abortion advocacy group, South Carolina Citizens for Life, threw its support behind the bill rather than have it defeated because of the dispute over adding exceptions.

The bill passed the Senate 37-7. If approved on a third vote, the ban heads back to the House, which already has passed the bill without the exceptions. The differences would have to be ironed out in a conference committee for the bill to go to Gov. Nikki Haley for her signature.

Bright had earlier held a news conference in the Statehouse at which he was joined by several national activists who, like him, opposed exceptions to restrictions on abortions. Two of the women who backed his objections said they were conceived through rapes, and a third gave birth after she was raped as a young teenager.

The only exception Bright said he was willing to allow was to save the life of the mother.

Afterward, a frustrated Bright chastised his colleagues for spending months on an environmental bill but only hours on the abortion measure.

“We spent probably eight hours on this bill,” said Bright. “We spent two months on the Pollution Control Act. It is very rare that a contentious special order bill goes this quickly.”

Grooms called the bill a partial victory for abortion-rights opponents even with the exceptions.

“Everything about this bill is tough,” Grooms said. “Even with the exceptions passed out of (the Senate), a number of lives will be saved.”

Abortion-rights supporters planned to try to block the bill if the exceptions hadn’t been included. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he’d prepared more than 170 amendments, which would’ve taken days to get through with less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session this year. Hutto was among the seven senators who voted against the 20-week abortion ban.

South Carolina’s American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Victoria Middleton denounced the Senate’s action, issuing a statement saying the second-trimester abortion ban is governmental interference in a private matter.

“Today’s debate showed that the goal of some South Carolina politicians is to limit a woman’s access to abortion as a legal medical option,” Middleton said.

“The measure does nothing to improve health outcomes for families and could have a chilling effect on doctors seeking to give their patients the best medical care possible. “

Before the vote, another opponent, Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, reminded colleagues they are not doctors and they could be infringing on constitutional rights.

“Politics should not drive medical decisions,” Kimpson said. “We are not medical experts. If we pass this bill, I suspect that we will have a legal challenge on our hands.”

Bright’s hard line was supported by national activists Rebecca Kiessling, a 45-year-old Michigan lawyer, and Juda Myers of Texas, who founded Choices For Life, which assists rape victims who want to deliver their babies.

Kiessling, president of Save the 1, an abortion-rights opponent, said her mother twice sought an illegal abortion after being raped and becoming pregnant, but ultimately decided to give birth to her.

“I did not deserve the death penalty for the life of my father,” Kiessling said. “You punish rapists and not babies.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.