COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Dueling abortion bans are once more advancing in the South Carolina House and Senate as Republican lawmakers approach a familiar standstill.
Neither chamber budged from their respective proposals in a special session last year that highlighted the challenging fault lines for GOP-controlled statehouses seeking to further restrict abortion. Five weeks into the current legislative session, Republican leaders have now advanced different proposals they claim adequately address a recent South Carolina Supreme Court decision overturning the state's prior ban.
“There obviously seems to be some sort of race going on here as to who can get their bill through a committee, through the body, first to the finish line," said Republican Sen. Richard Cash, adding: “So we have two chambers moving forward with two different bills. And my concern is we'll end up where we ended up in the fall.”
In a speech Tuesday on the Senate floor lasting over 30 minutes, Republican Majority Leader Shane Massey outlined his proposed ban. Similar to the now-obsolete 2021 law, the bill bars abortions when cardiac activity is detected, around the sixth week of pregnancy.
Because each justice wrote their own legal opinion in the January ruling, Massey said it was difficult to craft a ban permissible under their interpretations. Still, Massey argued that the new proposal responds to the South Carolina Supreme Court's concerns in part by defining pregnancy as beginning when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus.
The Senate bill removes exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest after 12 weeks. Physicians would also be required to document their medical rationale for determining the existence of a fatal fetal anomaly or a risk to the patient's health or life.
Meanwhile, as in the fall, the House has put forth a more restrictive ban.
The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a ban from conception with exceptions for rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly, and the patient's health and life. While the House proposal would not prosecute someone for seeking an abortion, Republican Rep. John McCravy said medical professionals could lose their medical license for improperly approving one.
Democratic Rep. Spencer Wetmore criticized what she called extremely broad definitions in the House proposal that could entangle family members alongside physicians and doctors in violating the law. She named one section that bars people from administering, prescribing, delivering or selling any “medicine, drug, or other substance with the specific intent of causing an abortion.”
House Democrats accused Republican leaders of ignoring other pressing issues throughout the General Assembly’s sessions-long debate over abortion.
“I trust that everyone remembers the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Wetmore, referencing the 1993 comedy where a weatherman repeatedly relives the same day.
Other similarities exist between the House and Senate measures. Both versions explicitly state that the bill does not ban birth control. Both versions impose $10,000 fines or two-year imprisonments for people who “perform, induce, or attempt to perform or induce an abortion” in the Senate bill and someone “who is not a physician” and “prescribes any means of abortion” in the House bill.
Republicans in both legislative bodies acknowledged “political realities.” McCravy said he added exceptions for sexual assault and fatal fetal anomaly to make his proposal more amenable to the Senate. But, as in the fall, Massey said the upper chamber lacks the votes for a ban from conception.
“The issue is we don’t have the votes in this body for a ban earlier than when heartbeat is detected," Massey said. "But this is a big deal. This is a big deal. We’d save thousands of lives with this.”
The continued debates come one day before a joint session is expected to replace retiring South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn — the high court's lone female judge who wrote the leading opinion in the 3-2 January decision — with Judge Gary Hill.
Local chapters of Planned Parenthood, the League of Women Voters and other groups have criticized the limited public input. The Senate bypassed a traditional committee hearing last week and sent its bill directly to the floor. Public testimony was limited to one-minute comments at a previous House subcommittee meeting.
Republicans have defended the process by referring to the many opportunities for public testimony during the dozen meetings held during the special session. Republican Rep. Jay Jordan held a stack of paper he said represented 400 pages of submitted written testimony.
“The issue has been vetted and discussed in the last year in a very, very in-depth fashion,” said Jordan, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.