Conservative S.C. lawmakers say they will push for a ban on abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
If it becomes law, the proposal effectively would bar most abortions in South Carolina and could set up a showdown in the federal courts.
“It’s a common-sense bill. If a heart stops beating permanently, the person is dead,” said state Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood, who plans to file the fetal heartbeat bill in the S.C. House. “Common sense should tell us that when a heart is beating, we have a precious human life that should not be terminated.”
The proposed law would ban nearly all abortions after a fetus has a detectable heartbeat — as early as six weeks in a pregnancy. That would be about two weeks after a woman’s first missed period, and well before many women realize they are pregnant, said Vicki Ringer, the public affairs director for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.
More than 60 percent of the roughly 5,100 abortions performed in South Carolina last year occurred after six weeks of gestation or post-fertilization, according to the latest data from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
South Carolina currently prohibits abortions at 20 weeks or more of pregnancy, with few exceptions, after passing a restrictive abortion law in 2016.
Iowa passed a fetal heartbeat bill this spring, among the strictest abortion laws in the country. But that law is on hold for now as opponents challenge it in court.
North Dakota and Arkansas also have passed similar laws, only to see them overturned by federal courts. Thus far, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review the lower court rulings.
Efforts to pass a fetal heartbeat law in South Carolina have failed, so far. Bills introduced in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018 all died without reaching the House or Senate floor.
Opponents, including Planned Parenthood, have argued such bans restrict a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body and health care. They also say abortion bans primarily affect the poor, who can’t afford to travel out of state for an abortion.
State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, said she “cannot believe” the group of Republicans pushing the fetal heartbeat bill wants to “waste its legislative capital on doing something just to please the fringes of a political party and pandering to just a few people.”
“The agenda for South Carolina should be education, workforce development and increasing access to our ports … and empowering our teachers so they can do their jobs,” Bright Matthews said. “Our priorities are clearly misplaced.”
‘Right to life’
The proposal faces a tough road to passage again this year, especially in the state Senate, where Republicans hold a majority but Democrats can filibuster controversial bills to death.
Last year, Senate Democrats took turns stalling a vote on an outright abortion ban for days until Republicans gave in and dropped the proposal.
Still, conservatives in both the House and Senate plan to press on.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, told The State a heartbeat bill likely will pass the State House’s lower chamber. And Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said he will introduce a companion bill in the S.C. Senate.
“Whether the child is born or preborn, murder is wrong and the government (has a primary) duty to protect a fundamental right to life,” Grooms said.
Under the most recent fetal heartbeart proposals introduced in the General Assembly a doctor would have to check for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion. If a heartbeat was detected, the doctor could not perform the abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, a fetal anomaly or if necessary to save the life of the mother.
McCravy would not say what exceptions his proposal would include.
The fetal heartbeat bill won’t be the only abortion legislation on the table when legislators return to Columbia.
State Rep. Steven Long, a Spartanburg Republican who supports the heartbeat bill, said the House has a 20-member caucus committed to pushing pro-life bills during the upcoming session.
State Rep. Lin Bennett, R-Charleston, said she will refile a bill restricting dismemberment abortions.
Others have pledged to support the much more sweeping “Personhood Act,” which failed to pass the Senate in May.
That proposal — to be filed by state Sen. Richard Cash, R-Anderson — would establish that the unborn have legal rights at the moment of conception, banning almost all abortions.
State Rep. Josiah Magnuson, R-Spartanburg, said he plans to file a House bill with language to clarify the “Personhood Act” would not outlaw in vitro fertilization or an abortion to save the mother’s life.
“We’ve got a governor now that signed the Personhood pledge,” said state Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, a personhood supporter. “I’m hoping that with our fight and the governor’s support, we can get some of these so-called pro-life Democrats and Republicans to actually vote pro-life.”
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has promised to sign pro-life legislation into law.
“There’s been nobody more committed to pro-life legislation than Gov. McMaster, and there’s absolutely no reason to expect that to change in the coming legislative session,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said.
‘The tide is turning’
Recent attempts to ban nearly all abortions outright in South Carolina, however, have failed in the General Assembly, as Democrats filibustered the proposals. Also, any “personhood” legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by McMaster likely would be struck down as unconstitutional in the courts, opponents say.
State Senate Democrats see abortion rights as “settled law” and the continued push for restrictions as a waste of time.
“As far as I’m aware, Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and until that’s changed, I think they’re wrong,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston. “I intend to (again) filibuster any movement – any piece of legislation – that would ... erode a woman’s right to choose and make a personal decision without the interference of the government.”
Some pro-life legislators, though, say they feel emboldened by judicial appointments under President Donald Trump — including the recent confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh — to pass a law that could spark a court challenge to overturn Roe v. Wade. The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion.
“We have a moral obligation to defend life,” Long said. “The court system is primed and ready for a good piece of pro-life legislation. Now is the time we need to be pushing and fighting to get legislation like this passed. The tide is turning.”
‘Some legislators ... feel they know best’
But Senate Democrats remain a significant speed bump — if not a roadblock — to any abortion ban.
Senate Republicans have lost votes since their defeat on the same issue earlier this year, according to Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
Columbia Democrat Dick Harpootlian won the special election to replace former state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, who could not vote during the last abortion debate due to his suspension as he faced criminal charges.
Also, former state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, made the jump to Congress earlier this year. His replacement almost certainly will be a Republican. But a special election isn’t until late March, and the new senator likely won’t be sworn in until early April.
“That person is going to be there for, at most, a month,” Massey said.
Also, with the Senate’s reorganization, the lieutenant governor no longer presides over the Senate and breaks tie votes. In the past, the Republican lieutenant governor was a reliable “yes” vote. Now, a tie goes to “no.”
“Now, a tie vote fails,” Massey said. “Before, a tie vote succeeded.”
In recent years, Winthrop University polls have found the majority of South Carolinians agree abortion should be legal but limited to few circumstances — when the mother’s life or health is at risk, or if a pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.
About 21 percent of likely voters in the 2016 S.C. GOP presidential primary surveyed said they favored a total abortion ban, according to an April 2015 Winthrop Poll.
“We just know it’s not in keeping with the beliefs and wants of the people of the state, but we have some legislators who feel they know best .... what’s right for women and their families and their health and health care,” said Planned Parenthood’s Ringer. “South Carolina has much greater needs than trying to ban something the Supreme Court has already determined to be legal.”
Ringer also argues proposed “Personhood Act” language would ban contraceptives that interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, including some birth control pills, IUDs and emergency contraception.
Rep. Magnuson, a supporter of the proposed restrictions, is unfazed.
“We have a great chance this year ... to make sure we are protecting all life as the Constitution requires,” Magnuson said. “No life can be taken without due process of law, and I believe that is the state’s highest responsibility.”