S.C.'s only women senators resist new abortion restrictions up for debate


COLUMBIA - The three Republican women in South Carolina's Senate urged the other members of their party to adopt a 12-week abortion ban Tuesday as they fought additional restrictions one month after helping filibuster a near-total ban.

It remains to be seen whether the coalition known as the "sister senators" - the three Republicans, one Democrat and one independent who are the only women in the 46-member chamber - will be able to block a new version of a bill that cleared the state Senate earlier this year with some of the group's backing.

The Republican-led Senate debated a bill that bans 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.

In blistering speeches, all three Republican women said the current proposal does not give women enough time to make a decision and criticized changes like one requiring child support beginning at conception as ridiculous. Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy endorsed the 12-week ban as a "real compromise."

Shealy and Republican Sen. Penry Gustafson pushed back on assertions that they are not true Christians because of their positions.

"We in the South Carolina Legislature are not God. We do not know what's going on in somebody else's life. We do not have the right to make decisions for someone else," Shealy said.

House Republicans also axed a section of the measure allowing minors to petition the court for an abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

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 bill's chance of passing and send it into a round of negotiations with the House.

"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."

Although 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.

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.

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.


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.