COLUMBIA, S.C. — Conservative South Carolina lawmakers voted Tuesday not to make changes to the state's abortion laws after this summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision, meaning rules on abortion likely will not become more restrictive.
South Carolina was for decades at the forefront of passing more restrictive abortion laws that challenged Roe v. Wade, before the landmark case was overturned this summer.
House members on Tuesday - including many who favor a blanket ban on abortion - voted down the Senate’s attempt to reduce the amount of time that victims of rape or incest could obtain the procedure from 20 weeks after conception to 12 weeks.
But the state that helped lead the nation through requiring ultrasounds, parental consent and 24-hour waiting periods before abortions is at an impasse during a special session. The Senate could only muster enough votes to tweak South Carolina's current six-week ban — which isn't even in effect at the moment because of a state Supreme Court challenge.
The House started its session Tuesday by rejecting a proposal by Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter to have the right to abortion placed before voters in a constitutional amendment.
“Why are you afraid to let the people decide?” Cobb-Hunter asked. “Are you afraid you are going to be proven wrong? I think that’s it.”
By rejecting the Senate's version, it allows a group of three lawmakers from each chamber to work on a compromise between the Senate bill and the House version, which banned almost all abortions with exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest or that threaten the life of the mother up to 12 weeks after conception.
But Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey isn’t sure there is any room to negotiate.
The Republican said senators showed earlier this month there aren’t enough votes in the 46-member chamber for a ban earlier than six weeks. The Senate’s three women joined two other Republicans against a nearly total abortion ban, leaving the chamber short of votes needed to end a potential filibuster.
The bill before the House keeps the ban on abortion after an ultrasound determines cardiac activity is present in a fetus, which is usually around six weeks. It cuts the time that victims of rape and incest who become pregnant can seek an abortion from 20 weeks to about 12 weeks, and requires DNA from the aborted fetus in those situations be collected for police. It also clarifies protections for doctors who order an abortion if it is determined a fetus cannot live outside the womb.
For lawmakers and groups that have spent decades trying to end all abortions, it is a frustrating end to what looked so promising after leaders in the Republican-dominated General Assembly quickly called for a special session once the draft opinion leaked that the U.S. Supreme Court was ready to let states to decide the abortion issue themselves.
“I cannot concur with a bill that does nothing. We were not called back to pass a bill we already have — we were called to re-write the laws of our state,” said Rep. John McCravy, the Republican who put together the House’s bill.
McCravy had said he plans to join about a dozen other of the House's most conservative members who agree the Senate bill is unacceptable to their promise to protect all life. Nearly all the 124-member chamber's 43 Democrats are against the proposal, too, but for entirely different reasons.
Meanwhile, South Carolina's Supreme Court has suspended enforcement of the state's six week ban until it can decide if it violates the state constitution's guarantee of a right to privacy, leaving the 20-week ban passed in 2016 as the current law.
The debate has Republicans sniping at each other. McCravy called Sen. Tom Davis, who took the lead on a possible filibuster, the “Bully from Beaufort,” saying his vision of South Carolina was “forcing teachers to tell 13 year-old children that they can get free contraception without their parents knowing, and killing at least 2,000 babies a year in the womb."
Davis has said that greatly and unfairly distorts his positions, and he thinks if Republicans are going to push for restrictions on abortion they should also improve access to birth control, prenatal care and education opportunities for children.
Joining Davis in the Senate were the chamber's three Republican women. They said a ban on almost all abortions went too far and were especially upset the bill from the House originally had no exceptions for rape or incest.
"Are you pregnant with a dead baby? Too bad. Raped at 11 by your grandfather and got pregnant? That’s just too bad,” Sen. Penry Gustafson said earlier this month.
In response, the South Carolina Freedom Caucus, which includes about a dozen of the House's most conservative members, released a letter last week from its two female members saying that they “mean it when we say we are pro-life.”
The letter said so few abortions happen after rape and incest that they didn't matter.
“Permitting the murder of a living being based on situations that virtually never occur is unacceptable to us,” said the letter by Reps. Ashley Trantham and Melissa Oremus which promised all 13 members of the group would vote against the bill.