COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Republican-controlled South Carolina Senate is set to rehash an ongoing disagreement with the GOP-dominated House over when the conservative state should ban abortion.
Lawmakers have less than three weeks left to pass any new restrictions in a legislative session that began days after the state’s highest court overturned a 2021 law and followed last year’s contentious special session that resulted in a legislative impasse.
The Senate this week will take up a near-total ban with limited exceptions that already cleared the House. Senators have already shot down the proposal several times over the past year. They have instead passed a ban that would take effect when cardiac activity is detected, as early as six weeks and before many people realize they are pregnant.
The chambers are searching for a response to a January state Supreme Court decision that left abortion legal through 22 weeks, although doctors say other strict regulations mean the state’s three clinics don’t typically provide abortions beyond the first trimester.
The political wrangling’s final outcome will reverberate far outside state borders. Out-of-state patients have increasingly turned to South Carolina for abortion care in a region that has largely curtailed access.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey asked that the bill be prioritized over other contested proposals until debate is finished.
He didn’t say why he wanted senators to consider the measure. There has been no indication that any votes have changed since the chamber last considered the proposal. Five Republicans, including the Senate’s three GOP women, joined every Democrat in September to reject a near-total ban. The Senate’s most vocal abortion opponent withdrew an amendment in February to match the House bill.
Massey’s request came right after some of those holdouts shared that they were sent anatomical models of backbones by a group that wants to ban all abortions. The models came with a note that urged the lawmakers to vote for the House bill “and grow a spine,” Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy said.
“I got one hell of a spine already,” said Shealy, one of the near-total ban’s GOP opponents.
Massey has repeatedly said he can’t get the 26 Senate votes for the stricter bill. He has asked the House to help senators slow rising abortion numbers that are “too serious to be having some gamesmanship.”
Under the since-struck ban, South Carolina reported 204 abortions in July 2022, according to provisional data shared with AP by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Just 5.4% of those patients reportedly came from other states.
The numbers show that South Carolina has had over 900 abortions take place in each of the first three full months of this year. Nearly half of the patients hailed from other states.
Providers also anticipate additional need considering Florida’s governor recently signed a six-week ban into law and North Carolina Republicans are converging on tougher restrictions after recently securing veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers.
Ashlyn Preaux said the abortion fund she helps run in the conservative Upstate region is serving more out-of-state patients than ever before. She said it is “cruel” that people must travel for “basic, reproductive health care.”
Any new ban would compound state regulations that providers say continue to hinder access in a state with only three abortion clinics. South Carolina is also one of six states that have not banned the procedure but require at least one in-person visit to obtain medication abortion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“We are certainly better off than a lot of our surrounding states. But it is an absolute overstatement to say that abortion is freely accessible in South Carolina,” Dr. Katherine Farris, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, told the AP.
The retirement of one state Supreme Court justice who voted this January with the 3-2 majority to strike the 2021 law has given anti-abortion groups hope that a new ban might stand.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster recently urged lawmakers to continue working on the issue. McMaster told reporters on April 11 that he “very much supported” the 2021 law that the court “erroneously rejected.” That ban at detectable cardiac activity, he added, was “the right answer” and “reasonable.”
Holly Gatling, the executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life, told the AP earlier this month that lawmakers have “plenty of time” to solve what she called a “moral crisis.” Her organization supports the House ban but she said leaders should pass a “unity bill.”
“They need to come up with a bill that will save as many children as can be saved that will pass the Senate and that will survive the South Carolina Supreme Court’s review,” Gatling said.
Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report. 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.