Last week’s South Carolina supreme court decision upholding the state legislature’s six-week abortion ban appears to have ended the debate over this issue in the Palmetto State.
But did it?
As the dust settles from last week’s landmark ruling, new dust is being kicked up at points all along the state’s ideological fault lines on this seismic issue. Trenches are already being dug ahead of the second regular session of the 125th S.C. General Assembly – which is set to convene in Columbia, S.C. on January 9, 2024.
Will lawmakers take up the abortion issue again? During an election year? And will the end result of their deliberations be an even stricter ban? Or could lawmakers throw this issue back to the citizens to let them decide how best to proceed?
The authority of the state to regulate abortion has been firmly established in the aftermath of the U.S. supreme court’s recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which had maintained a national right to abortion for the last half century. The overturning of Roe effectively legalized state abortion bans including the so-called “heartbeat bill” – which outlawed a majority of abortions in the Palmetto State once a fetal heartbeat had been detected.
In January of this year, however, the state court struck down the heartbeat bill – specifically the six-week requirement of the law – after it was challenged by the South Atlantic office of national abortion provider Planned Parenthood on the grounds it violated protections of the S.C. Constitution (Article I, Section 10).
The court’s 3-2 decision to overturn the heartbeat bill sent lawmakers back to the drawing board, and in May of this year they passed a second version of the 2021 ban – Act No. 70 of 2023. This bill was specifically crafted in response to concerns raised by the court – notably concerns raised by associate justice John Few.
While many in the Republican party – which enjoys supermajority status in both the S.C. House and State Senate – were busy savoring this victory, others were less-than-thrilled by the ruling.
Some lamented the passage of the ban – others lamented it did not go far enough in reigning in abortion.
For example, five female members of the S.C. Senate – who have dubbed themselves the “sister senators” – issued a fiery joint statement criticizing the court’s decision to uphold the new law, saying “life-altering decisions are best made by those who are actually pregnant … not by legislators or judges.”
They specifically slammed the court for “soiling itself” with an “unexplainable, completely contradictory opinion.”
These five senators – Katrina Shealy, Margie Bright Matthews, Mia McLeod, Sandy Senn and Penry Gustafson – hail from different parts of the Palmetto State. Three (Shealy, Senn and Gustafson) are Republicans. One (McLeod) is an independent.
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In addition to blistering the justices for allegedly kowtowing to state lawmakers (“any branch of government that fears a co-equal branch is not co-equal”), they took after the substance of the decision.
“Six weeks is not enough time for most women and girls to realize they are pregnant, determine what is right for them and take safe, expedient action,” the senators said in their joint statement (.pdf). “The only thing that was different between the high court’s striking of the first heartbeat bill and its subsequent upholding of the second nearly identical bill, was the make-up of the court.”
That’s not the only thing that was different, though …
As I noted in our previous coverage leading up to the court’s ruling, the 2023 bill omitted several words which justices previously deemed problematic – namely references to a woman making an “informed choice” about her pregnancy. Furthermore, lawmakers clarified the medical definitions they relied upon in determining when a pregnancy began – adding this new language to the 2023 bill.
Justice Few ultimately deemed the amended bill “a reasonable standard by which to regulate most abortion.”
Few’s flip-flop notwithstanding, the sister senators aren’t going away. In fact, they have plans to advance their beliefs on two key political fronts. First, they plan on pushing a statewide referendum on the abortion issue – which they believe is a way of addressing the matter “once and for all,” constitutionally.
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“We trust the people of South Carolina and do not believe our judgment is superior to theirs,” they wrote in their statement. “Our success will depend on whether legislative leaders allow a referendum to move forward. Those leaders who refuse to allow voters to decide the abortion issue should be held accountable at the ballot box next year.”
They also announced their plans to “encourage more women to run for office.”
“If only two more reasonable female senators had been elected, the latest version of the heartbeat bill would have been successfully blocked,” they wrote. “We believe more females should be on the ballot as should the abortion issue.”
In the S.C. House of Representatives, though, a trio of female lawmakers are pushing hard for a tougher ban.
“We had a gift when Roe was overturned and it is a shame that so-called Republicans in the House and Senate did not stand for life,” Oremus told me. “Are they scared of not getting re-elected or trying to appease the minority? I sleep well at night knowing that when I meet my maker, I did all I could to protect the unborn. How could anyone call a human being inside of a woman anything but a miracle? It’s not a choice, it’s a baby. I wasn’t faced with a choice when I got pregnant at sixteen. I was faced with reality. My choice came when I had unprotected sex. It is now time we step up and teach our young girls and boys the consequences of unprotected sex. We can’t be scared to talk about it. Women need to realize that ridding themselves of a baby doesn’t rid them of the guilt or the fact that they committed murder.”
Oremus encouraged “naysayers” to visit the website Abortion Procedures if they had any doubts as to the grim realities associated with the procedure.
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As for the “sister senators,” Oremus told me “it’s a sad day when mothers advocate to other women to kill babies.”
“How hypocritical is that?” she asked. “This isn’t a religious issue, but a moral issue. How many women have been lied to? And as leaders it is important for us to lead by example, and educate our constituents on the facts. And that includes the harsh truth about what abortion really is and the consequences of that decision.”
Trantham concurred with Oremus’ assessment, calling abortion an “evil and inhumane” act perpetrated against the “most vulnerable” in our society.
“The first time I witnessed an abortion I was thirteen years old,” she said. “Our youth pastor asked our parents for permission to show us a video so we would know exactly what it was. From that moment I knew that it was a life being torn apart in the womb. A few years later I watch people close to me spiral into a life of regret, drugs and alcohol after getting an abortion. I will never be able to look at abortion as anything but an evil and inhumane act against the most vulnerable. Nine months of hardship is a short time compared to a lifetime of heartbreak.”
As for Cromer, she made it clear she and her conservative colleagues were not done with this issue, either – calling out GOP leaders for their lack of resolve in failing to pass a tougher abortion ban.
“This most recent legislation was a win for the unborn in South Carolina, but the fight isn’t over,” she told me. “And any insinuation that this is not a fight worth having, or not an issue legislators should speak on, is another display of cowardice from our so-called leaders.”
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“I will never stop fighting for babies in this state or holding elected officials accountable,” Cromer continued. “Voters have sent us here based on the platforms we ran on, and it’s time we show some courage and actually vote how we said we would. Let me be clear, I believe that we should protect all children from the moment of conception. However, I also know that this problem isn’t simply solved by legislation. Hearts and minds are changed when families, communities, and churches take a bold stand, when we love others who have found themselves in difficult circumstances, and show compassion for all life.”
Just as the “sister senators” made it clear they intend to make this an issue in the 2024 GOP primary election cycle, Cromer indicated conservative House members were also eager to make their case on abortion on the campaign trail – in both House and Senate elections.
“We campaigned on this already – and we won our campaigns based on this,” Cromer told me. “I do agree with them that we do need two more reasonable senators.”
“The problem in the State House isn’t how many men or women there are, but how many people campaign one way and vote another,” Cromer said. “South Carolina voters deserve to have their values represented, especially when it comes to an issue as important as protecting the unborn. Too many people claim to be pro-life conservatives to win an election, only to betray the voters when they get to Columbia. I hope conservatives with integrity will step up to run for office and hold these people accountable.”
So where are Republican leaders on this issue? Nowhere … they just want it to go away.
Senate majority leader Shane Massey made it clear this month that he hoped abortion was not on the agenda in 2024 – whether in the form of a proposed referendum or a more aggressive ban.
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“We need to let this settle and let’s see how this plays out in South Carolina before we start doing anything else,” Massey told reporters last week. “It was pretty evident to me that this was an exhausting issue. It took a lot of time, and it was very it was very mentally draining for a lot of people, and so it feels to me like there’s a lot of fatigue on dealing with this again.”
While Massey was slammed for his statement by abortion advocates and opponents alike, he got some unexpected support from one of the “sister senators.”
“I do not believe the 2024 legislative year should be – or will be – about the abortion issue,” Katrina Shealy told me this week. “There are many other issues the state needs to address that, in the long run, could help this and other issues. We need judicial election reform. We need legal liability reform which is driving small businesses out of business. The dust needs to settle on this issue for this year.”
Amid the GOP infighting, Democratic leaders made it clear they intended to continue advocating against both existing and expanded abortion bans in the legislature.
“It is unfortunate but not surprising that some lawmakers will be pushing for a total abortion ban in the upcoming session especially when we have not seen the consequences and implications of the current six-week abortion ban,” state representative Beth Bernstein told me. “This is not what the overwhelmingly majority of South Carolinians, regardless of party affiliation, want implemented. I strongly believe that we will have negative healthy outcomes for women across this state as a result of the current ban and medical doctors will not practice medicine here since we are now criminalizing their medical decision making authority.”
Another Democrat put it more bluntly …
“Two weeks ago I said this issue was anything but settled — clearly that was correct,” state representative Heather Bauer said. “I look forward to the Republican majority explaining to voters why women should give birth to their rapists’ babies and 10-year-old incest victims should become mothers.”
Count on this news outlet to keep our audience apprised on the latest developments in this debate as a battle many thought was over actually appears to be opening on multiple new fronts …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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