Near total abortion ban with no rape, incest exceptions advances to SC House floor

James Pollard/AP

A Republican-led House panel advanced legislation Tuesday that would outlaw nearly all abortions in South Carolina but make an exception for the life and health of the mother.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 13-7 largely along party lines Tuesday to send H. 5399 to the House floor for what is expected to be a contentious debate.

Five legislators, two of whom did not attend Tuesday’s hearing, did not vote on the bill.

“What we do matters,” said a visibly emotional Pickens County Rep. Neal Collins, one of three Republicans who did not vote on the bill, before his remarks were cut short by Judiciary Chairman Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester. “Out of respect for the process, I’m not voting today. But I want to be clear that myself and many others are not in a position to vote for this bill without significant changes to the bill.”

Legislators are scheduled to return to session Aug. 30, with the Senate to follow after Labor Day.

The legislation outlaws nearly all abortions, but does list different medical emergencies where doctors can perform abortions to protect the life and health of the mother. Rape and incest exceptions are not included, though they are currently allowed under the state’s six-week abortion ban and their removal is unlikely to get wide support in the Senate. The bill does not include specific language related to fetal anomalies, an exception included in the current law.

State Rep. John McCravy, a Greenwood Republican who led the bill’s drafting, said the legislation does not aim to prohibit contraception or restrict assisted reproductive treatment, like in vitro fertilization. Nor, he said, does it seek to subject women who seek abortions to prosecution or restrict interstate travel.

“This bill does not mimic the language of any model bill or any other bill in the nation,” said McCravy, chair of the Family Caucus that advocates for conservative legislation. “This bill is not the result of any national group effort. It is completely unique to the state of South Carolina, and only gives special status to the input of medical professionals in our state.”

The law does, however, closely mirror what other states have passed after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a 1973 landmark case that constitutionally protected the right to have an abortion.

Current law in South Carolina allows for abortions until fetal cardiac activity is detected, typically occurring at around six weeks of pregnancy when, abortion rights advocates argue, most women don’t know that they are pregnant.

The proposal before the House was advanced Tuesday after a separate committee charged by Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, took hours of testimony last month from pastors, doctors, lawyers and anti-abortion and abortion rights advocates.

Republicans hold the majorities in both the South Carolina House and Senate. But the removal of rape and incest exceptions in any abortion ban is largely expected to be the point of contention among both Republican and Democratic legislators.

A wide swath of the Senate — 30 Republicans to 16 Democrats — is unlikely to support a ban without those exceptions. The upper chamber previously defeated a bill that would have removed them, in what Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said likely is “the best indication” of where senators stand.

“From what I’ve heard from people, from senators, I haven’t gathered that there’s any backing up on that,” Massey told The State. “I think the question is whether the Senate can pass (the bill) even with those exceptions. We’ll see what the House does, where we are. From what I’m hearing from people, I don’t think you back up from the exceptions that are in ‘heartbeat.’ The question is how much support you have going forward even with those.”

This is a developing story. It will be updated.