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.

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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.

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“It became like we were playing with live ammunition,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Tom Davis, who 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.”

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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 around six weeks.

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

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That decision 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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

this story was originally published May 16, 2023, 1:10 AM.

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