COLUMBIA — After hours of contentious debate that stretched deep into Tuesday night, a South Carolina House committee voted mostly along party lines to advance a bill to the floor that would ban most abortions in the state.
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 seven 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. Opponents of the bill noted that many women might not realize they are pregnant before the six-week deadline.
But the bill's sponsor, Republican state Rep. John McCravy of Greenwood, said he felt it is critically important to protect the rights of a fetus after a heartbeat has been detected.
State Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, proposed more than 100 amendments to the measure in an attempt to filibuster it, and lawmakers spent several hours debating them.
“It is disturbing to some members when we are forced to debate, take up, argue over bills that are unconstitutional on their face," Bamberg said.
But around 9 p.m., Bamberg said he was mindful that lawmakers needed to go home so he decided to withdraw the amendments. He said he would reinstate them when the bill came up on the floor for a full vote.
The House Judiciary Committee's 14 Republicans and one Democrat, state Rep. Laurie Funderburk of Camden, voted for the bill. Seven Democrats voted against it.
One change from a Republican lawmaker, state Rep. Nancy Mace of Daniel Island, was included in the bill. Mace's amendment added exceptions for cases of rape or incest. The only exception in the original bill would have been if the mother's life would be in serious medical danger without an abortion.
Democratic opponents of the bill, including state Rep. Beth Bernstein of Columbia, pressed McCravy on its constitutionality, noting courts in other states had already struck down similar bills.
“Why are we pushing legislation that we know is unconstitutional and is only going to cost the taxpayers money, time and energy?” Bernstein asked.
McCravy dismissed the potential costs, saying it would be worth it to protect unborn fetuses and noting that civil rights-era legislation also led to expensive litigation costs.
“This is now the civil rights issue of our time,” McCravy said. “You don’t have the civil right to hurt someone else. This bill just protects that innocent child.”
McCravy said he hopes the bill will provide an opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court, which has added two conservative justices in Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh in recent years, to reconsider what types of restrictions on abortion are permissible under the constitution.
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 week, 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 weeks.
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.
An earlier 3-2 subcommittee vote along party lines followed more than an hour of passionate testimony from dozens of supporters and opponents of the bill, including pastors, women's rights activists, pregnancy counselors, parents and doctors from across the state.
Bill advocates argued the bill would protect the future lives of unborn children. Foes of the ban said many women may not even realize they are pregnant before a heartbeat is detected and are capable of making their own healthcare decisions without government intervention.
Pastor Joey Deese of Rock Hill testified in support of the bill, saying it represents a battle "for flesh and blood." Ann Warner, the chief executive of the Women's Rights and Empowerment Network testified that the "consequences of this legislation would be insidious and far-reaching."
Multiple obstetricians and gynecologists said they feared the legislation would have a negative impact on women's healthcare more broadly, including Dawn Bingham of Spartanburg, who called the bill "dangerous and shortsighted."
Even if the bill passes the full S.C. House, Democratic lawmakers in the state Senate are confident they will be able to stop it from becoming law.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, spearheaded a multi-hour filibuster last year that led to the late night defeat of a bill that would have banned almost all abortions in the state. This time he said he plans to use "all procedural tools available" to make sure the bill does not make it anywhere.
"The Republicans won't come out and say this, but many of them are embarrassed that this type of unconstitutional legislation continues to occupy so much time on our legislative agenda," Kimpson said. "They don't have the backbone to stand up to the extreme right and let them know their true feelings."