After key SC House vote, ‘heartbeat’ abortion ban poised to become law

Emily Bohatch
·8 min read

After hours of debate and a walkout staged by South Carolina House Democrats, the state Legislature advanced a restrictive “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban that would stop most abortions at about six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.

By a vote of 79 to 35, lawmakers gave the bill a second reading Wednesday, meaning the bill needs just one more perfunctory vote Thursday before it heads to the governor’s desk for his promised signature signing the ban into law.

After the vote Wednesday afternoon, the S.C. GOP applauded lawmakers.

“Today is a historic day for life in South Carolina, and we’re looking forward to seeing Governor McMaster sign the Heartbeat Bill into law,” S.C. GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said in a statement. “On behalf of all the hundreds of thousands of grassroots conservatives who made their voices heard on November 3rd, we want to thank House leadership, especially Speaker Lucas, for getting us across the finish line.”

Two Republicans crossed party lines to vote against the bill: S.C. Reps. Jerry Carter, R-Pickens, and William Cogswell, R-Charleston. Two Democrats — S.C. Reps. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, and Lucas Atkinson, D-Marion — voted in favor of the bill.

A number of House members made passionate speeches both for and against the bill.

The bill, S. 1, would require doctors to perform an ultrasound to detect a heartbeat before performing an abortion. If one is detected, doctors would be prohibited from performing an abortion except when the mother was the victim of rape or incest, if the mothers health is in jeopardy or if the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life. However, if a woman asks for an abortion because she was the victim or rape or incest, the doctor is required to report the crime to local law enforcement.

Doctors who perform abortions banned by the proposal could lose their medical licenses and face felony charges.

The bill flew through the Senate in record time, passing through the chamber within the first weeks of this year’s legislative session.

As debate began Wednesday morning on the House floor over the highly controversial ban, most of the chamber’s 43 Democrats — who do not have the numbers to block the bill — stood up and exited the House in protest.

“The Democratic caucus is here to proclaim that we’re tired of it,” Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said from the podium moments before Democrats exited the room. “We’re tired of the hypocrisy. We care about life until death. We care about birth. We care about life. We care about people eating, people not dying because they can’t get vaccines, people not dying because they can’t get (a coronavirus) test.”

“(T)he Democratic Caucus will not participating in this farce that is about pretend life,” Rutherford added.

The remaining House members, mostly Republicans, pushed on, voting to get rid of nearly 100 amendments, most of which were submitted by Democrats who were no longer in the room.

Avoiding amendments has been a strategy of the bill’s supporters. If any new amendments were added to the bill, it would go back to the Senate, slowing its passage. If it passes without new amendments, it will be sent straight to the governor’s desk.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to sign the legislation into law.

Democrats in both the House and Senate have pushed hard to amend the bill and slow its passage. Among the failed amendments introduced by Democrats was one that would allow pregnant mothers and their partners to carry guns to protect the unborn fetus.

Republican leadership has worked hard to push the bill as it is.

Still, the remaining handful Democrats continued to push amendments to the bill on Wednesday. S.C. Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, criticized Republicans in the House for trying to block any amendments to the bill, regardless if they agree with them, so the bill doesn’t have to go back to the Senate.

“I understand where this is going, and I understand where the votes are going to be,” said Ott, who ultimately voted in favor of the bill. “But I ask you to search your conscious and truly ask yourself is this the best we can do?”

Ott argued that blocking amendments to fast track the bill removes any input from the House, and said he worried that asking the House to pass Senate bills as they are could become a habit in the future.

“What are you going to do the next time someone comes up to you and says you can’t amend the bill?” Ott asked his colleagues.

Ott brought forward a number of amendments, including one that would remove the requirement for doctors to report allegations of rape or incest to law enforcement, one that would require the attorney general to litigate cases involving this legislation and an amendment that would stop the bill from going into effect until the court ruled that other similar bills are constitutional.

With few Democrats remaining in the chamber, all of his amendments were resoundingly shot down.

One Republican member, S.C. Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, also tried to introduce amendments, one of which would have stripped the bill of exceptions for rape and incest, but he submitted them too late and they could not be considered.

Hill also admonished his colleagues for pushing to pass the bill as it is without any possibility of amendments.

“We’ve shut out all opportunity on actually having a vote in this body today on whether we want to have rape or incest exceptions,” Hill said.

Hill argued that the bill wasn’t truly “pro-life” if it didn’t protect fetus’ conceived in rape or incest, reflecting a sentiment from hard-line anti-abortionists who often criticize their GOP colleague’s efforts to restrict abortion for not going far enough.

“Members, your hands will not be clean if you pass this as is,” Hill said.

Later, Hill stormed out of the chamber, throwing papers with his amendments he was not allowed to submit.

Speaker Jay Lucas called his behavior “childish.”

“We are not children,” Lucas said. “We do not throw tantrums when we lose.”

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A number of House members made passionate speeches both for and against the bill.

S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, D-Orangeburg, called Republicans “hypocrites” for supporting this legislation but not supporting other measures that could possibly save lives. Specifically, she called out members who were against requiring people to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“It is, in my opinion, very true that you are Pro-life depending,” Cobb-Hunter said. “You are pro-life depending on who’s life it is. Depending on where they live, what they look like, who their parents are, what crimes they committed.”

S.C. Rep. Melissa Oremus, R-Aiken, shared her story about becoming pregnant as a teenager. Oremus never once considered abortion, she said, and worked two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet while simultaneously completing high school and college.

“I’m not saying that everyone has it in them to have that drive that I had,” Oremus said. “But I want to be a testimony that you can do it with a child by your side.”

Meanwhile, outside the chamber, Democrats held a press conference where they criticized Republicans for making this bill a priority as the state continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We come here for one reason, and that reason is to do what’s best for the people of South Carolina,” Rutherford, the House minority leader, told reporters and the bill’s supporters and critics outside the House chamber. “And that means that every day we come up here and we’re concerned to make sure that from the time of conception to the time of death South Carolinians are taking care of.”

Republicans took a victory lap on the House floor Wednesday afternoon as debate drew to a close.

S.C. Rep. John McCravy, a Greenwood Republican who sponsored similar legislation last session, thanked lawmakers who spent hours in hearings, which sometimes stretched late into the afternoon, discussing this bill. He said the “fetal heartbeat” bill is not just a Republican bill, but a bill for “all those who care about life.”

“This is what South Carolina stands for,” McCravy said. “We stand for life.”

S.C. Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, called the bill, “the greatest pro-life bill this state has ever passed.” He called on the governor to sign the bill into law the moment the House votes to pass it.

After the bill becomes law, it likely will face legal challenges that could block it. In other states where similar legislation was passed, courts have granted injunctions as challenges to the bills were heard. Currently, no similar piece of legislation has been successfully put into place in any state.

But those court challenges also spell victory for anti-abortion activists.

Anti-abortion advocates hope that “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban bills can be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the newly conservative court, with three members appointed by former President Donald Trump, could overturn Roe v. Wade, a court decision that protects the right to get an abortion during certain stages of pregnancy.

“If this bill saves one life, we’ve done what we’re supposed to do,” Hiott said.

Maayan Schechter contributed to this report.