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While Other States Debate Abortion Bans, South Carolina Sits Out

While nearby states are acting quickly to move more restrictive abortion laws through their legislatures, South Carolina lawmakers have barely touched the issue so far in 2019.

Lawmakers have introduced at least nine different abortion bills in the South Carolina General Assembly in 2019, from a near outright ban on abortions to banning specific abortion methods.

None of them have received public hearings, even as legislatures in Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Ohio push forward bans on abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is about six weeks into a pregnancy. Current South Carolina law allows abortions until the 20th week.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ran for re-election as an opponent of all abortions and said earlier this year he would sign a ban. The climate in the federal court system also appears to be on the side of people who want to restrict abortions with Republican President Donald Trump already appointing two U.S. Supreme Court justices and a number of other federal judges anticipated to overturn court rulings if they get a chance.

But the only time abortion has come up in the South Carolina Statehouse in 2019 was at last week's budget debate in the House, which passed a proposal in the spending plan preventing state money from going to Planned Parenthood, which Republicans said was a blow against an abortion provider.

The organization receives less than $100,000 a year from the state and it goes for birth control and family planning for people on Medicaid.

The groups pushing for stricter rules on abortions aren't worried about the slow progress. This is the first year of a two-year legislative session in South Carolina and they expect some abortion bills to be discussed in a few weeks now that the House has finished its budget debate.

"We are patient and we are persistent and we are determined to save every baby's life in this state," said Holly Gatling, executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life.

The group touts its consistent work against abortion for the past 30 years, starting with a 1990 bill requiring the permission of a parent or guardian before an abortion is provided to a minor. On that year, more than 13,000 abortions were performed in South Carolina. In 2017, state health officials reported just over 5,100 abortions.

During that time, the state has passed a number of laws, from requiring women to sign a form saying they were given a chance to see an ultrasound image before an abortion, to requiring a 24-hour waiting period and in 2016, banning abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy unless the mother's life is in danger or the fetus cannot live outside the womb.

Planned Parenthood said the recent debate over state money that goes to its organization wasn't about abortion, but instead about hurting poor women.

Nearly every year in South Carolina, lawmakers have some sort of abortion debate.

"I've been here 21 years and in 21 years we've done this 21 times," House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia said. "There is no method to the madness, the madness only changes. It used to be about abortions, now it's about Planned Parenthood."

Abortion bills have an easier time passing the more conservative House, often getting stuck in the state Senate. The 2019 Senate is even less conservative with one seat flipping from a Republican to a Democrat and a seat in one of the state's most conservative districts empty awaiting a special election.

Sen. Richard Cash, a Republican from Powderville who won a special election in 2017 in part on a promise to ban all abortions has sponsored two bills this session — one that says life begins at conception and would ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected in a fetus and another preventing the sale of the remains of an unborn child for research.

He has been disappointed at the lack of discussion about abortion in 2019.

"There is no issue in this state that is more important than the shedding of innocent blood," Cash said. "We've got the bills before us that a good bit of the country are talking about. We're just not talking about them yet."

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