The South Carolina Senate on Tuesday voted to ban abortion at roughly six weeks after ending a filibuster by the chamber’s five female senators, who had become the bill’s most outspoken opponents.
The abortion measure, which passed by a vote of 27 to 19, includes exceptions for the patient’s life and health, for fatal fetal anomalies, and up to 12 weeks for rape and incest cases. Doctors who violate it would lose their license and face potential civil lawsuits, felony charges, a fine of up to $10,000 and two years in jail.
The ban gives those under age 16 - South Carolina’s age of consent - seeking abortions without their parent’s consent about six weeks to obtain permission from a judge unless they’re rape or incest victims. Opponents of the ban said that is not enough time. Supporters argued that since minors can’t consent by law, they would be covered by the rape exception and have 12 weeks.
The bill also requires the “biological father” to pay child support from conception, a provision critics said establishes the “personhood” of the fetus and could be used by antiabortion advocates to promote other “personhood” laws in the state.
Gov. Henry McMaster (R), who signed a similar measure two years ago that was blocked by the South Carolina Supreme Court, said Tuesday night that he would sign the new ban “as soon as possible.” It will go into effect with his signature.
“Tonight, our state is one step closer to protecting more innocent lives,” he said.
Republicans, who hold 30 of 46 seats in the Senate, needed 26 votes to end debate. The swing vote proved to be state Sen. Tom Davis (R), who voted to end debate and later for the ban after backing the ban’s opponents in the past.
Davis, a Beaufort lawyer who described himself in an interview with The Washington Post before the vote as “fiscally conservative, socially libertarian,” said he fielded calls from constituents on both sides of the issue, consulted with his three grown daughters, his ex-wife, OB/GYNs and his priest. Davis said the issue came down to “a balancing of rights.”
“At some point in time, the right of the state to see the unborn child born does take precedent over the woman’s right to her body,” Davis said.
After voting to end debate, Davis said in a message to The Post that he preferred the six-week ban to the existing 22-week limit. “We needed to bring this to a vote one way or another,” he said. “All senators who wanted to be heard had been heard.”
Opponents said South Carolina’s high maternal mortality rates - even higher among Black patients - would worsen under the ban. On Tuesday, senators who opposed the bill noted that it required doctors who provide abortions to victims of rape or incest to notify local sheriffs and provide their address, in some cases the same address as the alleged perpetrator.
“This is probably a deterring thing to keep her from having the abortion,” state Sen. Katrina Shealy (R) said.
“We are not the morality police, and you cannot be someone else’s conscience,” she added later. “We must let people make these decisions for themselves.”
South Carolina became an abortion battleground after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court last June. An earlier ban on abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected at roughly six weeks took effect briefly over the summer before being blocked by the courts. That allowed abortion to continue in the state until 22 weeks of pregnancy.
The state reported about 1,000 abortions in each of the first three months of the year, nearly half of the patients from out of state, according to South Carolina provisional state health records that lawmakers cited during Tuesday’s debate. Abortion advocates considered it a regional refuge. Opponents complained that it had become a magnet for those seeking the procedure.
“South Carolina has become the abortion capital of the southeast,” state Sen. A. Shane Massey, the Republican majority leader, said during the debate. Since surrounding states passed restrictions, he said, “we’re catching overflow from all those states.”
The state has drawn the attention of advocates on both sides of the abortion fight, emblematic of some of the pushback to strict bans passing in recent years in conservative-leaning states across the country. Hard-line conservatives have pushed states to restrict most abortions, while some GOP lawmakers have resisted near-total bans, a reaction some in the party say to the sustained political backlash since the nation’s highest court overturned Roe.
Most Southern states with the exception of Virginia have implemented restrictions on abortion, including North Carolina, where a Republican supermajority overrode the governor’s veto last week to pass a 12-week ban that significantly narrows the window for legal abortions.
South Carolina’s Republican-controlled House tried to ban most abortions starting at conception. But the Senate rejected a near-total ban three times, with a filibuster by the chamber’s female members: Shealy and two other Republicans, a Democrat and an independent who called themselves the “Sister Senators.” Last week, the House approved the Senate’s roughly six-week ban, sending it back with a slew of amendments.
On Tuesday, Shealy unsuccessfully proposed amending the ban to 12 weeks, which Senate leaders and abortion opponents had rejected in the past, since most abortions are performed before the first trimester. She called 12 weeks “a real compromise,” echoing the rhetoric of Republicans in neighboring North Carolina about a similar ban GOP lawmakers recently approved there.
Shealy had voted for the six-week ban this year when it failed to pass but said she has since changed her mind and voted against it Tuesday.
“We need to let families think about it, and we’re not doing it,” she said of the ban in an interview with The Post before the vote. “We’re rushing them into a decision.”
Shealy accused the ban’s supporters of “voting for political reasons” ahead of next year’s elections and said the ban was “not what the people of South Carolina want.”
She said she called male colleagues before the vote, including two senators whose daughters work for her as Senate pages, and urged them not to back it.
“I’ve been telling them, ‘Go ask your daughters. Go ask your wives. What do they think? Don’t think of it as your political future. Think about it as their future,’” she said.
State Sen. Sandy Senn, who voted against the ban, said fellow Republicans - many of whom are running for reelection next year - would face a reckoning at the ballot box for their vote in support of the ban. During the midterm elections last fall, abortion rights groups scored major victories, even in conservative states, striking down ballot measures in places like Kansas and Kentucky.
“The Republican Party is going to lose if we keep on with these extreme stances,” she said.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, Greenville Women’s Clinic and two physicians sued to block the earlier six-week ban after it went into effect last June. This year, the state Supreme Court issued a 3-2 decision that the law violated the right to privacy in the state Constitution. The new ban will test that opinion, written by the court’s sole female justice, who has since been forced to retire due to age limits. She was replaced by the legislature with a male justice, making South Carolina’s the nation’s only all-male state Supreme Court. Conservatives expect any challenge to the measure passed Tuesday will be turned aside by the court.
State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, a Republican attorney preparing to deploy on June 15 for six months with the South Carolina National Guard to Djibouti, voted for the ban and said that he found the exemptions to the ban made it “palatable” and that he believes the new ban will withstand legal challenges.
“We have some very talented lawyers that specifically wrote this one to avoid that,” he said.
After the vote, Molly Rivera, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said the group planned to challenge the new measure as soon as Wednesday, with the same plaintiffs as the previous lawsuit.
Unless the new ban is blocked, South Carolina abortion advocates will soon start sending patients to Maryland and D.C., said Ashlyn Preaux, executive director of Columbia, S.C.-based Palmetto State Abortion Fund, which assists those seeking abortions with the cost of the procedures and travel.
“It gets more expensive the further along you are,” she said, as people have to travel farther, stay overnight, find child care and miss work.
“It’s going to put a bigger burden” on them, she said.