South Carolina House passes abortion ban with rape and incest exception

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Members of the South Carolina House passed a near-total abortion ban on Tuesday after a more restrictive version of the legislation failed.

The measure bans all abortions except in pregnancies up to 12 weeks that result from rape or incest. The original version’s exception for the life of the woman also remains. HB 5399 heads to the South Carolina Senate next week for consideration.

Earlier Tuesday, Republicans tried to pass an abortion ban that made no exceptions for rape or incest. The measure failed by eight votes, underscoring a growing political divide among Republicans over how far to push the kinds of legislative abortion restrictions that remain broadly unpopular with voters.

That tension was evident Tuesday, the Republican leaders struggled at times to keep their lawmakers in line. Earlier in the day, House members — led by the most conservative members of the GOP — rejected a rape and incest exception.

The frustrated Republican Rep. Nathan Ballentine took to the lecturer Tuesday to persuade colleagues to support an abortion ban, even if it included exceptions. He noted that their rejection of moderating measures was playing into the hands of Democrats, who were also strategically rejecting exceptions for the ban.

“We got chess going on right now, some people are playing checkers, and some don’t even now a game’s going on,” Ballentine said. “If we go all or nothing on this bill, we’re going to end up with nothing.”

Ballentine warned that if the House sends a hard-line bill with no exceptions to the Senate, “it ain’t coming back.”

As the House prepared to vote on the near-total abortion ban, which included only one exception, for the life of the mother, Republicans called an unexpected hour-long recess. Democrats decried the move as an unprecedented delay meant to twist the arm of holdouts.

“And all I can say is I’m so very glad to be part of a caucus where your arm is not twisted to do something that goes against your core,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of the House.

When Republicans returned to vote, they were unable to pass the most extreme version of the bill. So lawmakers used parliamentary procedures to retake the vote after adding the rape and incest exception.

1 in 3 American women have already lost abortion access. More restrictive laws are coming.

Heading into Tuesday’s debate, the Republican-sponsored bill was already vulnerable. Democrats opposed the bill as too extreme, while a group of 20 conservative Republicans suggested they wanted a more stringent version of the legislation.

Rep. Josiah Magnuson, a Republican, proposed an amendment that would punish South Carolinians who get an abortion with up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine; the amendment failed, 91-9. Republican Rep. Jonathon Hill proposed a similarly unpopular amendment that would have defined abortion as murder, making all abortions subject to the applicable penalties of murder.

Several amendments that sought to blunt the impacts of the bill also failed, including an amendment that would have allowed minors pregnant by rape or incest to get an abortion at up to 20 weeks.

“I just don’t know how you look your neighbors in the face, your daughters, and you tell them, ‘if you’re 9-years-old, you’re 11-years-old and you’ve been raped, you don’t have an option to take care of that,’ ” said Republican Rep. Micah Caskey as he urged House members to adopt the amendment.

When Republican Gil Gatch argued for a similar exception for minors, his colleague Rep. Doug Gilliam, also a Republican, attacked Gatch’s characterization that a child victim of incest is “forced” to carry a pregnancy.

“She had choices,” Gilliam said, arguing a child victim, for instance, could take Plan B rather than continue a pregnancy and later terminate it.

“If her dad rapes her… who drives her to get the morning after pill?” Gatch asked.

“The ambulance,” Gilliam replied.

The tensions highlighted by Tuesday’s vote were previewed two weeks earlier, when Republican Rep. Neal Collins expressed regret for supporting the state’s six-week abortion ban in 2021, which took effect earlier this year before a state court temporarily blocked the law.

South Carolina state Rep. Neal Collins (R) on Aug. 16 expressed regret for supporting an abortion ban during a committee hearing in Columbia, SC (Video: South Carolina State House)

At one point, Republican leaders criticized their Democratic counterparts for voting with conservative Republicans to block amendments that would have created exceptions, an apparent strategy to advance a highly divisive and restrictive version of the bill.

Democratic Rep. Leon Stavrinakis rebuffed the attack, taking to the microphone to tell Republican members, “This is not our bill.”

“We didn’t pass this bill out of committee,” Stavrinakis said. “We’re not the ones trying to strip the rights and freedoms and equality and health-care choices away from the women of South Carolina.”

He added, “If you don’t like it, get your own house in order.”

House Democrats also argued that lawmakers should put the question of an abortion ban to voters via ballot initiative. Kansas voters rejected an amendment that would have stripped abortion rights from the state constitution earlier this month.

Cobb-Hunter, a long-serving Democrat, challenged her Republican counterparts to let voters decide what level of abortion access or restriction they want.

“What are y’all scared of?” she said during the Tuesday news conference. “If you are indeed speaking for South Carolinians, why not allow them to vote?”

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