South Carolina State Sen. Tom Davis rubs his head as Senate President Thomas Alexander gavels a vote closed while debating a ban on abortion at the state legislature in Columbia, South Carolina, on Sept. 8, 2022. (Sam Wolfe/Reuters)
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South Carolina Republicans failed to reach consensus Thursday on a near-total abortion ban, quashing an effort to enact the second state law restricting the procedure since the fall of Roe v. Wade and signaling GOP troubles in getting party members behind strict prohibitions.

Antiabortion lawmakers could not gather enough support for a ban beginning at fertilization that did not carve out exceptions for victims of rape or incest after two days of contentious debate.

The state already has a “heartbeat” ban that bars abortions after cardiac activity can be detected, which occurs around six weeks. That law took effect in late June, shortly after the Supreme Court reversed Roe, but was blocked by the South Carolina Supreme Court in August.

Instead of passing a near-total ban without exceptions for rape or incest, the Senate passed an amended bill that mirrors existing restrictions. The Senate bill bars abortion after about six weeks and includes exceptions for victims of rape or incest up to 12 weeks. The bill also includes exceptions when a fetus is diagnosed with a fatal anomaly or when the life of the mother is at risk. The 27-16 vote split largely along party lines. The legislation will now be sent to the House.

The original bill senators began debating on Wednesday would have banned abortion except when a pregnant person’s life is at risk or “major bodily function” imperiled, a vague term that doctors and advocates fear could chill the provision of care to patients with dangerous pregnancy complications. Several amendments were made because there was not enough support among the Republican majority for a ban from fertilization or a ban without exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

Physicians who violated the bill as it was originally proposed would have faced felony charges and civil penalties — including potentially a $10,000 fine, up to two years in prison and the loss of their medical licenses. Patients who have abortions do not face criminal or civil penalties.

“I’m not going to let that happen,” Republican Sen. Tom Davis said after taking to the floor to briefly filibuster the proposed ban.

He recounted how his teenage daughters asked him if he’d allow the legislature to take away their right to bodily autonomy in the earliest stages of a pregnancy. Davis added that he did not believe the proposed bill amounted to an “equitable balancing of competing rights” between a pregnant person and an unborn child.

S.C. Republicans lash out at male colleagues over strict abortion bill

Since the fall of Roe, about 1 in 3 women have lost abortion access in their home states after bans triggered by the Supreme Court decision took effect.

Although abortion is temporarily legal in South Carolina while the state’s existing six-week ban is blocked by the court, it is part of a large swath of Midwestern and Southern states that have banned most abortions, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

North Carolina, which allows patients to terminate pregnancies before 20 weeks, remains one of the only states in the region to allow abortion care. Virginia allows abortion until the end of the second trimester, though the state’s Republican governor wants to pass a 15-week ban. Florida allows abortion up to 15 weeks.

While many states had abortion bans on the books, ready to take effect as soon as the Supreme Court overturned Roe, South Carolina would have been only the second state to pass a new abortion law since the ruling, following Indiana, which passed a near-total ban in early August.

The lawmakers pushing these measures are now faced with mounting evidence that the public does not support the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the nearly 50-year-old precedent. In August, voters came out overwhelmingly against an antiabortion amendment in Kansas, while Democratic candidates who support abortion rights have overperformed in recent special elections across the country.

The new efforts to pass near-total abortion bans suggest that Republican-led state legislatures are out of step with public opinion, said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks abortion legislation for the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research center that supports abortion rights.

“Since Dobbs we’ve seen the public come out in support of abortion rights, but it’s not hitting home with legislatures,” Nash said.

Because state legislatures are so heavily gerrymandered, she added, it could take years before Republican state lawmakers are forced to bend to public opinion on abortion.

More antiabortion legislation could be on the horizon: West Virginia is widely expected to pass another abortion ban when legislators return for a special session next week. The state legislature in that state reached a similar gridlock in late July, when the House and Senate were unable to agree on the specifics of their near-total abortion ban, which had been widely expected to pass in the deeply conservative state.

Two physicians who serve in the West Virginia state Senate — Republicans Tom Takubo and Michael Maroney — pushed for an amendment that would have removed criminal penalties for doctors who perform abortions, arguing that their proposed changes would stop doctors from fleeing West Virginia, where hospitals already struggle to attract physicians.

The legislature was unable to agree on a version of the bill to move forward, disbanding for the month of August. Legislators have been called back to the Capitol to continue debate next week.

Antiabortion leaders say they nonetheless expect to see state legislatures continue to ramp up efforts to pass new restrictions.

“It’s not surprising if for 50 years you were told that all roads go through the Supreme Court,” said Kristi Hamrick, chief media and policy strategist for Students for Life Action, one of the largest antiabortion groups. “Now they can go through state capitals … and there’s a lot of innovation out there.”

Republican state senators in South Carolina went back and forth for hours on Wednesday and Thursday considering amendments to the bill, including some that would have added exceptions to the ban. One contingent of lawmakers pushed for a strict ban that would almost entirely end abortion in the state; another group of Republicans urged their colleagues to include exceptions for victims of rape or incest and in cases where a doctor determines that a fetus will not survive outside of the womb.

Sen. Billy Garrett (R) repeatedly pushed back on proposed exceptions, objecting to his fellow lawmakers’ entreaties to consider the right of a to autonomy over her body, especially in cases of rape or incest.

“The right to life, in my estimation, is the most superior right to any right,” Garrett said.

Eventually, even the most vocal antiabortion lawmaker in the Senate chamber conceded that there was no way for the bill to succeed without exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

“As much as I hate being put in this situation,” Sen. Richard Cash (R), one of the state’s most outspoken antiabortion politicians, told a group of Republican senators who proposed a new version of the bill that included several exceptions, “I intend to vote for your amendment.”

Ultimately, even a ban from fertilization with exceptions for victims of rape and incest failed to get enough support to pass on Thursday.