‘We are voting against women’: SC Dems vow to fight before abortion debate

Published: May. 16, 2023 at 7:40 AM EDT|Updated: May. 16, 2023 at 12:43 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC/AP) - Three female Democrats from the South Carolina House of Representatives promised they would fight a six-week abortion ban during a special session of the General Assembly Tuesday.

Gov. Henry McMaster called the special session Friday through an executive order, stating that lawmakers had unfinished business that included work to finalize a ban on abortions after six weeks.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) began her comments with a question for taxpayers in the state.

“Do you really think it is worth paying us an extra $260 a day, each, in addition to mileage and subsistence? Do you think it’s worth it to the taxpayers of South Carolina, that it’s going to cost us almost $60,000 a day to come back here and talk about abortion and banning abortion when we could just as easily have done this in January? And for those of you who say yes, please don’t let me ever hear you talk about taxes and wasting taxpayer money,” she said.

Rep. Heather Bauer (D-Richland) called the debate over abortion and the potential for the passage of a new six-week ban “a complete invasion of our privacy.”

“Our freedoms are at stake, our personal liberties,” she said. “This is about making sure that politicians stay out of my family decisions, out of my doctor’s offices and also out of my bedroom.”

“We are voting against women,” Rep. Beth Bernstein (D-Richland) said. “I can’t say that more strongly than that.”

She referred to protesters nearby who held up signs that read, “Celebrate life.”

“I want to celebrate life. I want to celebrate the life of a mother who is carrying a child who has a fetal anomaly and it’s a risk to her life...to be forced to carry her unborn child when there’s no change that that fetus will survive,” she said. “And that’s the life I want to celebrate. It’s the women here who we are standing here trying to protect.”

Cobb-Hunter also offered a message to those with the “Celebrate life” signs.

“We welcome those of you with the signs saying ‘celebrate life’ to join us when we try to do something about gun violence, which is the number one cause of death of children in this state,” she said.

Republican abortion debate inches toward resolution in South Carolina

Abortion access would be almost entirely banned after about six weeks of pregnancy under a bill set for debate Tuesday in the South Carolina House after the state Senate rejected a proposal to nearly outlaw the procedure.

The two GOP-dominated chambers’ disagreement epitomizes the intra-Republican debates over how far to restrict access that have developed nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year and allowed states to set their own policies on abortion.

“It became like we were playing with live ammunition,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Tom Davis said. Davis helped block the near-total ban but supports other limits. “It was like this is for real now and everything that we debate and pass is going to be law.”

The impasse in South Carolina dates back to a special session last fall when House lawmakers demanding a near-total ban did not meet to negotiate with their Senate counterparts pushing for a ban at around six weeks.

The stalemate persisted even after the state Supreme Court in January struck down a previous law banning abortions once cardiac activity is detected.

The General Assembly’s inability to finalize a bill led McMaster last week to issue that executive order convening a special session. While McMaster acknowledged lawmakers’ work on expanding school choice, repealing certificate of need, restructuring the Department of Health and Environmental Control, passing a shield law, and approving a large incentive package for Scout Motors, he made it clear that he felt they had not “finished their business.”

One of the specific pieces of unfinished business, he said, was the issue of abortion.

“The General Assembly did not close the revolving door for criminals. It remains wide open. They have not passed bond reform, and they have not enhanced the criminal penalties for illegal-gun possession. In addition, the General Assembly must complete the state budget, and they must pass legislation that stops our state from becoming a destination for abortions,” he said at a news conference. “Therefore, I am directing the General Assembly to return for a special session to complete the important business at hand.”

With Friday’s executive order, McMaster became the first governor since Democrat Jim Hodges to reconvene the General Assembly to a special session.

The state Supreme Court’s decision back in January that struck down the previous “fetal heartbeat law” left abortion legal through 22 weeks of pregnancy and a sharp increase in abortions since then has rankled Republicans. Provisional state health department data show South Carolina reported nearly 1,000 abortions in each of the first three months this year, after totaling just over 200 in the one full month the previous ban was in effect.

The House is now weighing a Senate bill similar to the one they denied without real discussion last year. The measure would ban abortion when an ultrasound detects cardiac activity, around six weeks and before most people know they are pregnant.

Senators believe the new version contains tweaks that will overcome anticipated legal challenges this time around.

Opponents say the differences between the House and Senate bills are beside the point.

Ann Warner, the CEO of Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, said a ban of around six weeks is essentially an “outright abortion ban.”

South Carolinians oppose such restrictions “because they know that it puts people’s lives at risk, because it pushes health care further out of reach for the vulnerable, and makes pregnancy more dangerous for everyone,” Warner said last week in written testimony.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Larry Grooms said the majority party’s “troubles” began last year when some House lawmakers “wanted to be more pro-life” by insisting on a near-total ban that lacked the necessary support in the Senate.

“For those folks, the politics were more important than the policy,” said Grooms, whose biography lists awards from anti-abortion and conservative Christian groups.

This session, the House could have passed the Senate bill without amendments and it would have reached the governor’s desk to become law. But a House committee last week approved changes to mandate child support starting at conception and require a judge sign off on any minor’s request for an abortion.

The focus will be on which changes make the final House version. Davis said the Senate’s ability to end debate and pass the bill would be jeopardized if it contains language that moves toward granting full legal rights to fertilized eggs.

House Speaker Murrell Smith has said the chamber will not adjourn until the measure gets approval. But Democrats filed 1,000 amendments in an effort to prolong discussion even after Republicans invoked rules limiting debate.

“Bring supper, dinner, breakfast, lunch, whatever for days or however long you want to get through amendments,” Smith said last week.