COLUMBIA, S.C. – The South Carolina Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would outlaw almost all abortions in the state, overcoming years of hurdles thanks to Republicans winning new seats in last year’s elections.
The 30-13 vote is likely the final hurdle for the bill. It has passed the House easily in previous years and Gov. Henry McMaster has repeatedly said he will sign it as soon as he can.
“If this gets upheld by the courts, we will have saved thousands of lives in South Carolina every year. That is a tremendous victory,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, a Republican from Edgefield.
The " South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act " requires doctors to use an ultrasound to try to detect a fetal heartbeat if they think pregnant women are at least eight weeks along. If they find a heartbeat, and the pregnancy is not the result of rape or incest, they can’t perform the abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger.
Similar bills have passed in about a dozen other states but are tied up in courts. Both abortion rights advocates and opponents are waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in and rules any of the stricter bans are constitutional, especially since former President Donald Trump was able to name three justices.
In the Bible Belt, South Carolina led the fight for stricter rules on abortions during the 1980s and 1990s. The state’s current law bans abortions after 20 weeks and was once a conservative model.
But in recent years, states from Alabama to Ohio have passed restrictions that ban nearly all abortions because most women don’t know they are pregnant before about six weeks, when a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
The path for the bill cleared in South Carolina thanks in part to Trump. The divisive presidential race energized Republicans, who won three seats from Democrats in the 2020 elections and their new 30-16 advantage finally pushed the effort over a procedural hurdle that stopped the bill for years.
“Thank God for the people of this state,” said Republican Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau, who has been fighting to end abortion for 24 years and was the primary sponsor.
“The people of South Carolina every year have sent us more and more pro-life senators. In this past election cycle they sent us just enough,” Grooms said.
The vote was almost all along party lines. Sen. Sandy Senn of Charleston was the only Republican against it, and Sen. Kent Williams of Marion was the only Democrat to vote for the ban.
The bill now goes to the House, which if it makes changes — like removing the exceptions for rape and incest victims that some conservatives didn’t want in the proposal in the first place — will trigger another fight in the Senate. At least two Republican senators said they could not support the bill without those exceptions.
House Speaker Jay Lucas pointed out earlier this week the House passed just about the same bill 70-31 last session. And one of the House's main abortion opponents, Republican Rep. John McCravy of Greenwood, said he thinks fellow House members realize the best way to pass the bill is to leave it alone.
“I certainly am not for exceptions. But the reality of it is they would probably be on as it comes through," McCravy said.
The Senate labeled the bill No. 1 and made it the first major issue they took up in the 2021 session.
Democrats said that was shameful because South Carolina has many more pressing problems, including more than 6,000 people dead from COVID-19. It has never expanded Medicaid, raised the minimum wage and perpetually has an education system that ranks toward the bottom of the nation, said Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews of Walterboro.
“What have we done for the living,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Mia McLeod told senators Republicans wouldn't be the majority forever and would one day be shamed for taking away women's rights to choice, liberty and freedom.
“Enjoy this power and control while you have it fellows," the Democrat from Columbia said. "This is just politics to you, but it’s personal to millions of us”
Democrats were resigned to the numbers and decided not to gum up the Senate for weeks so they could get to other business. They said the state would waste money on a legal fight it was likely to lose and that other states are well ahead on.
“It goes into that legal limbo of years and years and years where it waits on a docket somewhere to be heard. Except this case will never be heard because there are 30 other cases pending across the country that raise somewhat or very similar issues,” said Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, a Democrat from Orangeburg.
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