COLUMBIA - A group of moderate senators restored exceptions for rape and incest on Tuesday to a measure to ban nearly all abortions in South Carolina, sending the bill to the state Senate floor for a potential 2020 election year fight.
The exceptions may be crucial for the bill to have any chance to pass. A proposal to ban abortions without them failed last year in South Carolina's Republican-dominated Senate.
Similar bills have passed in recent years in Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio. Missouri approved a ban on abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy, and Alabama lawmakers simply outlawed all abortions. All of them remain tied up in courts.
The Senate floor is the last hurdle for South Carolina's "Fetal Heartbeat Protection from Abortion Act," which would make almost all abortions illegal once fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually about six weeks after conception. The bill has always allowed an abortion if the mother's life is in danger.
It easily passed the House in April once the rape and incest exceptions were added, and Gov. Henry McMaster has said he will sign it no matter what.
But a small group of the South Carolina Senate's most conservative Republicans had removed the exceptions two months ago from the bill that passed the House, and more moderate Republicans warned that would doom it. They prevailed Tuesday, with three Republicans on the Senate Medical Affairs Committee joining six Democrats in refusing to advance the bill as written, which allowed the exceptions to be restored.
The Republicans flipped back to then pass the changed bill on a 9-6 party line vote.
Even with the rape and incest exceptions restored, the bill faces an uncertain future next year because some more moderate Republicans senators don't want to waste days fighting over it with Democrats. They've suggested that lawmakers should instead wait to see what happens with the similar laws in other states and move forward only if bans elsewhere withstand legal challenges.
Sen. Richard Cash led the push to get rid of the incest and rape exceptions. He said those are horrible crimes, but protecting innocent life, including a fetus from the moment of conception, is the government's most basic responsibility.
"We're not talking about whether I can yell 'fire' in a theater. We're not talking about whether I can own a tank. We're talking about whether I get to live or not," Cash said.
The Republican from Powdersville said he will fight to get the exceptions removed again on the Senate floor. If they stay, he would not say if he would support a bill that doesn't provide the kind of protection for life he feels he promised voters on being elected.
"I'm not ready to tell you," Cash said after the meeting. "But you can find clues in what I said."
South Carolina already had a similar abortion showdown in 2018 after Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg, who has fought for abortion rights for decades, altered a bill banning a specific type of abortion into a ban on almost all abortions and dared lawmakers to pass it.
Moderate Republicans couldn't support the proposal, which failed to get a two-thirds vote needed to clear a procedural hurdle. Democrats have added a seat since that election.
"What's being asked of us to do is vote to empower rapists, child molesters - vote against victims," Hutto said before the exceptions were put back in the bill.
Democrats are readying to fight the current bill if it comes up for debate. They questioned whether a woman could just tell her doctor she was raped or if a police report - available to the public - would need to be filed or an investigation including an invasive physical exam would be needed to get an abortion.
"In those small communities, as soon as somebody goes into a police department, everybody knows about it," said Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews of Walterboro.
Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Beaufort helped get the exceptions back in the bill. He said he sees them as an extension of allowing abortion to save the life of a mother, since a woman's mental health could be at stake if required to bear a child conceived during a crime.
"I want to pass something that has a reasonable likelihood of being passed," Davis said.
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