COLUMBIA - A South Carolina Supreme Court decision five days before the General Assembly returned for 2023 raised the possibility that abortion bans could once more dominate legislative debate in the state.
That likelihood increased on Thursday when a House subcommittee approved the first abortion ban to get a public hearing in the state this year.
A grueling special session spanning a dozen meetings and hours of floor debate throughout last summer and fall resulted in no new abortion restrictions. Then the highest court in South Carolina ruled in early January that a 2021 law banning abortions when cardiac activity is detected, at about six weeks after conception, violated the state constitution's right to privacy.
But one of the leading proponents of the special session's effort proved undeterred as his latest proposal took the first step toward becoming a law. Republican Rep. John McCravy introduced a bill that would ban abortion from conception with exceptions for rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly and the mother's life and health.
Lawmakers on a subcommittee Thursday gave the bill a favorable report. The entire House Judiciary Committee must now pass the measure before it can reach the House floor for a vote.
House Republicans in the deeply conservative state increased their majority by seven members in the midterm elections. But Speaker Murrell Smith of Sumter has acknowledged that any bill would have to pass the Senate, which lacked the votes last year for a near-total abortion ban.
Senate GOP leaders urged caution in the days after the abortion ruling. Senate President Thomas Alexander said the upper chamber should exercise care with the amount of time it spends on the matter. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey expressed confidence the issue would not take up the entire session but did not endorse any specific proposal.
Similarly, House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope said abortion would not "absorb" lawmakers, who have learned to balance it with other policies.
But some lawmakers said it's time to move on to other priorities.
"We spent two sessions, three sessions working on something that we know we still don't have the votes in the Senate to pass," Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy said. "We need to work on things that can move forward."
While the terms of the debate have changed, the conversation is not new for South Carolina. In May 2018, Democrats defeated a ban on most abortions after an hourslong filibuster at the end of a session in which opponents accused senators of delaying other pressing issues. In February 2021, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed the now-blocked ban.
McMaster has not given up on the 2021 law. The Republican governor said Wednesday night during his annual State of the State address that he will file for a rehearing in the state Supreme Court decision.
The ruling by the five-member court upended Republican leaders' agendas heading into the session, according to Pope.
"Suddenly, it's like you had the chess pieces and they all got knocked over," Pope told reporters on Jan. 9.
But McCravy's bill indicates the latest setbacks have not diminished the interest among at least some Republicans for additional restrictions. It is sponsored by 42 other Republicans across a wide swath of lawmakers that includes members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, House Majority Leader David Hiott, Pope and Smith.
The subcommittee meeting was announced less than two days before its start. After lawmakers heard about 30 minutes of public testimony on Thursday, McCravy expressed confidence that his new proposal banning abortion from conception would satisfy one of the three Supreme Court justices who voted to strike down the 2021 law because of legal concerns. In his opinion, Justice John Cannon Few wrote that by banning abortion at roughly six weeks, the General Assembly had created an interest in making "an informed choice about whether to continue a pregnancy" that undercut the the state's interest in stopping abortions altogether.
"In other words, if the State were to pass a total ban on abortion - despite a complete invasion of a pregnant woman's right to privacy - the privacy invasion might be reasonable ... because 'human life' has no countervailing interest; human life simply must be preserved," Few wrote.
South Carolina lawmakers are not alone. Many state legislatures are confronting the issue for the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion protections in June 2022. The Guttmacher Institute expects "very heated" legislative sessions, according to Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst for the research group supporting abortion rights. But Nash said the conversation has shifted.
"In the states that have banned abortion, what more could they possibly do?" Nash said. "And in the conservative states that haven't banned abortion, are they going to go that far?"
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.
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