COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would ban most abortions after around six weeks of pregnancy -- before most people know they are pregnant – and sent it to the governor who has promised to sign it.
The proposal restores a ban South Carolina had in place when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year — a ban that, once it took effect, was overturned by the state’s highest court because it violated the state Constitution’s right to privacy.
Republicans have been searching for an answer to that ruling because it left abortion legal through 22 weeks of pregnancy and sharply increased the number of abortions taking place in South Carolina as most other Southern states enacted stricter laws.
South Carolina is among the last bastions in the region for those seeking legal abortions, but that status likely will end soon.
Most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy will be banned in North Carolina beginning July 1 after the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature successfully overrode the Democratic governor’s veto last week. Abortion is banned or severely restricted in much of the South, including bans throughout pregnancy in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. In Georgia, it’s allowed only in the first six weeks.
The South Carolina bill includes exceptions for fatal fetal anomalies, the patient’s life and health, and rape or incest up to 12 weeks. Doctors could face felony charges carrying two years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has said he will sign the bill into law.
The Republican-led Senate’s opportunity to pass the bill came after the South Carolina House backed off a proposal to ban abortion almost entirely at conception. Senators had not been able to get the votes for that proposal after three different tries.
The vote also came after the three Republican women in the Senate urged the other members of their party to adopt a 12-week abortion ban as they fought additional restrictions one month after helping filibuster a near-total ban. They joined all Democrats in voting against the bill.
The women senators entered the State House together Tuesday to rousing cheers from dozens of abortion rights supporters gathered on the main floor. All five donned buttons that read “elect more women.”
In blistering speeches, the three Republican women said the 12-week proposal did not give women enough time to make a decision, and they criticized changes like one requiring child support beginning at conception as ridiculous. Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy endorsed a 12-week ban as a “real compromise.”
Shealy and Republican Sen. Penry Gustafson pushed back on assertions that they are not true Christians because of their positions.
“We in the South Carolina Legislature are not God. We do not know what’s going on in somebody else’s life. We do not have the right to make decisions for someone else,” Shealy said.
House Republicans also axed a section of the measure allowing minors to petition the court for an abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Republican Majority Leader Shane Massey outlined new regulations and definitions inserted by the Republican-dominated South Carolina House last week during proceedings slowed by hundreds of amendments from Democrats across two days.
This week marks the fourth time that the chamber has taken up abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.
The Senate's 15 Democrats, unified against both abortion bans, have largely let the Republican majority debate the issue among themselves. Opponents argue that South Carolina's high maternal mortality rates — with even poorer outcomes among Black patients — would grow worse under the new restrictions.
Abortion currently remains legal through 22 weeks in South Carolina, though other regulations largely block access after the first trimester at the state’s three clinics. But the law has gone unchanged amid a Republican disagreement over how far to restrict access that has only recently moved toward resolution.
Republican leaders have noted provisional state Health Department data that show rising numbers of abortions in South Carolina.
The action comes one week after Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly moved to enact a 12-week abortion ban by overriding the Democratic governor’s veto — pushing Virginia closer to being the last state in the region with relatively easy access.
Lawmakers anticipate legal challenges for any ban that ultimately becomes law. The South Carolina Supreme Court overturned a similar 2021 law as a violation of the state constitution’s right to privacy in a 3-2 decision this January. But many Republicans believe the latest version would stand after changes to both the proposal’s language and the court’s makeup.
James 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.
James Pollard, The Associated Press