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News / Nation & World

South Carolina’s only women senators to resist new abortion restrictions up for debate

By JAMES POLLARD, , Associated Press/Report for America,
Published: May 23, 2023, 10:21am

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The only five women in South Carolina’s 46-member Senate have vowed to resist new abortion restrictions up for debate after the group filibustered a near-total ban last month.

But it remains to be seen whether the coalition known as the “sister senators” — three Republicans, one Democrat and one independent — will be able to block a new version of a bill that cleared the state Senate earlier this year with some of the bloc’s backing.

The Republican-led state Senate on Tuesday is expected to debate a bill banning most abortions after an ultrasound detects cardiac activity, generally around six weeks and before most people know they are pregnant.

But the proposal includes new regulations inserted by the Republican-dominated South Carolina House last week during proceedings slowed by hundreds of amendments from Democrats across two days.

House Republicans axed a section allowing minors to petition the court for an abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. They also added a requirement that biological fathers pay child support beginning at conception.

“We had told them, if you want it to pass, don’t move a semicolon,” Republican Sen. Sandy Senn, who does not support a ban around six weeks, told The Associated Press earlier this month. “They were very, very substantive changes. So, yes, we will be filibustering.”

Some senators are pulling their support for the bill after the changes — including the two Republican women who as recently as February supported a similar ban around six weeks. But it is unclear whether enough Republicans disagree with the changes to hurt the chances that the measure heads straight to the governor’s desk.

Although Republican Sen. Penry Gustafson voted for the bill back in February, she said the House made “dramatic” changes that she does not support.

“I want to restrict abortions and I’m very upset about what’s happening in our state,” Gustafson told The Associated Press. “But I’m a legislator first. I’ve got to look at the bill and see how it can be upheld, how it can be implemented.”

Still, she expects most members of her party — which holds 30 seats in the chamber — will back the measure as it stands.

The women senators entered the State House together Tuesday to rousing cheers from the dozens of abortion rights supporters gathered on the main floor. All five donned buttons that read “elect more women.”

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. During last month’s filibuster, the five women criticized male leadership for repeatedly calling the debate. Speaking consecutively from the well, they at times talked about the physical changes that occur throughout pregnancy or highlighted separate issues they wanted to solve.

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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.

In a statement last week, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said the “pro-life members of the Senate believe this is unacceptable.” Republican leaders have noted provisional state Health Department data that show rising numbers of abortions in South Carolina.

“Twenty-nine Republican Senators have voted twice to pass a heartbeat bill, and I look forward to returning with these members … to continue the fight for life in South Carolina,” Massey said.

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.