COLUMBIA, S.C. — A “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban bill is at the precipice of passing the South Carolina Senate after senators voted to give it a second of three readings Wednesday.
That means that the bill — which would stop most abortions at six weeks, before most women know they are pregnant — could pass the Senate Thursday. It would then need to pass the House to become law.
The bill, S.1, would require doctors to perform an ultrasound to detect a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion. If a doctor were to find one and still go through with the procedure, they could face a felony charge and could, therefore, lose their licenses to practice medicine.
The original version of the bill only included exceptions if the health of the mother is in jeopardy. Tuesday, lawmakers added exceptions for victims of rape and incest and Wednesday, they added an exception for fetal anomalies that are deemed incompatible with life.
During the last few years, abortions performed after six weeks in South Carolina made up about 55% of all abortions performed in the state, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Of the 5,101 abortions performed in the state in 2019, 2,323 were performed at six weeks or gestation or less.
On Wednesday, senators voted 29-17 to give the bill a second reading, leaving debate to Thursday.
A lone Republican voted against giving the bill a second reading: Charleston Republican Sandy Senn.
Senn has been one of the most vocal over the last two days of debate, threatening to oppose the bill if it didn’t include exceptions to rape or incest and introducing an amendment that would extend the abortion deadline from when a heartbeat is detectable to the end of the first trimester. Senn has long questioned the constitutionality of the bill as written and worked to introduce amendments that could reduce potential court challenges.
Her concerns are legitimate. Several states have passed “heartbeat” bills similar to South Carolina’s, and all have been stopped from going into effect by a court injunction.
Democrats argued again Wednesday that adding South Carolina to the list of states waiting to hear from courts about the “heartbeat” bills would be expensive and fruitless.
“We don’t have the resources to engage and put more lawyers on this case,” said Charleston Democrat Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who spent about an hour on the floor criticizing the bill.
Kimpson also argued that the Senate had more important business to deal with, namely the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left more than 6,000 South Carolinians dead.
“COVID is running rampant though our state and here we are in the General Assembly spending hours upon hours upon hours upon hours talking about an unconstitutional law on its face instead of talking about vaccines,” Kimpson yelled on the floor. “We ain’t got enough vaccines. Nobody at the helm of DHEC. We’ve got lives being lost. And we want to consume this body’s time debating an unconstitutional law?”
Sen. Tom Davis, who was at the center of Republican infighting over exemptions to the bill Tuesday, pushed back on Kimpson’s allegation they were wasting time on an unconstitutional law.
Davis, a lawyer, argued that while the bill was in violation of Roe v. Wade, a court decision that limits the government’s right to regulate abortion, the court has been known to change its mind over time. Davis, a lawyer, pointed to Plessy v. Ferguson, a court decision that upheld segregation. Years later, the court changed its mind and overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in the case Brown v. Board of Education.
Davis argued that state legislatures and local school boards played a role by pressuring the court to change its mind segregation.
“If the Supreme Court sees state after state after state doing this the same way district after district after district did (after Plessy v. Ferguson) it increases that likelihood of revisitation,” Davis said.
Kimpson, also a lawyer, argued that the court was pressured to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson due to a growing cultural push back on segregation, not because of moves by lawmakers. He added that he doesn’t think there is the same interest in overturning Roe v. Wade.
While Senate Democrats spent some time Tuesday and Wednesday voicing their displeasure about the bill, Kimpson said he was gearing up for his biggest push against it on Thursday. Then, Democrats will fight their Republican colleagues about holding a third and final reading on the bill.
The Senate’s first day of debate was full of Republican infighting over whether exceptions for rape, incest and fatal fetal anomalies should be included in the virtual-abortion ban bill. Two Senate Republicans publicly threatened to withdraw their support for the bill if exceptions were not included.
After debates over what exceptions to include, senators agreed Tuesday and Wednesday to add exceptions for rape, incest and severe fetal anomalies that would lead to death.
Republicans are likely to pass the “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban bill this year, despite failing last session. Democrats lost key seats in the legislature in November.
Once the bill reaches the House, it’s expected to be passed fairly quickly, as it was last session. And S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has repeatedly called on lawmakers to pass the bill so he could sign it into law.
Just an hour before senators gathered to discuss the bill Wednesday, McMaster and a gaggle of lawmakers and anti-abortion group leaders celebrated Republican’s strengthened position but cautioned people not to celebrate the bill’s passage just yet.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” McMaster said.
“Don’t stop now,” he urged lawmakers.
McMaster compared the push to stop the majority of abortions to the push to slow the spread of COVID-19. He said the state “pulled out all the stops to protect life.”
“That protection certainly must begin when that heartbeat is detected,” McMaster said.