Pro-life lawmakers in South Carolina face difficult calculus
State legislators in a special session weigh their options while activists on the ground watch the real-life effects
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, Mark Baumgartner and his team at the pro-life sidewalk counseling group A Moment of Hope in Columbia, S.C., were elated.
“We thought, you know, it could be [by] the end of September or the end of October, there’ll be no more abortions in South Carolina and we could wrap up shop and go on vacation and take a nap,” Baumgartner said. Instead, by mid-September, business appeared to have increased at the local abortion facility. He and his team started encountering more women who were uninterested in talking to them. “We’re very discouraged right now,” he said Thursday.
The 53-year-old has been frequenting the driveways around the Columbia business park that houses the local Planned Parenthood since October 2012, offering help and gift bags to the women who come for appointments. Baumgartner said he is outside of the abortion facility for about five hours as women arrive on days it performs abortions, which is every Tuesday and Friday, according to Planned Parenthood’s website. He and his team keep a tally of how many women arrive each day. Leading up to the Supreme Court’s June ruling, they estimated that Planned Parenthood took in an average of 52 clients a week on abortion days in 2022.
Three days after Roe’s overturn, the state’s 2021 heartbeat law took effect. That week, the sidewalk counselors counted 73 abortion clients. But the numbers eventually settled to 20 or 30 a week until the state Supreme Court on Aug. 17 temporarily blocked enforcement of the heartbeat law. That returned the state to the standard of the previous law protecting babies after 20 weeks. Baumgartner and his team soon saw numbers of clients arriving at the facility on abortion days bounce back up: 69 the week of Aug. 28, 64 the next week.
Baumgartner had pinned his hopes for the facility’s imminent closure on a special session going on in the South Carolina legislature. Since July, lawmakers in the South Carolina House had been working on a bill that would protect babies from conception except to protect the mother’s physical health. If passed, that would effectively shut down the state’s three abortion facilities, including Planned Parenthood in Columbia. But disagreements among Republican lawmakers over exceptions and gestational limits have so far inhibited that legislation.
As pro-lifers like Baumgartner and his team watch the real-world effects of their state’s abortion laws, South Carolina lawmakers have to decide: should they stick to the principle of protecting life from conception or pass a bill that could help the heartbeat law take effect again?
Justin Hall, director of communications for Palmetto Family Council, said the last few weeks have been some of the most stressful of his life. He watched the pro-life bill make its way through the House, where lawmakers added a last-minute rape and incest exception so that the measure would earn the votes it needed to pass. The week the bill was in the Senate, he watched 23 hours of the Senate livestream—sometimes from his Columbia living room, sometimes from the Palmetto Family Council offices down the street from the State Capitol—taking down the timestamps of notable comments that could show them “where the will of the body was.”
A Senate committee removed the rape and incest language that Tuesday, leading to opposition later in the week in the full chamber. Five Republicans opposed the bill, and one threatened a filibuster. The Senate majority leader saw that the bill did not have enough support to end the filibuster and proposed an amendment that basically rewrote the entire bill—instead of protecting babies from conception with exceptions, the new version would amend the state’s existing heartbeat bill, removing some of the language causing problems in court. The Senate passed the rewritten bill and sent it back to the House, where lawmakers will take it up again on Sept. 27.
Hall pointed to past statements from pro-life House lawmakers that suggest the rewritten legislation could face an uphill battle in that chamber. “There is a significant bloc of legislators who … in the previous vote in the House, were very hardline against exceptions,” Hall said. Because of that, he wouldn’t be surprised to see the House refuse the amendment and send the previous bill back to the Senate.
Hall said he and his team at the Palmetto Family Council ultimately want legislation that will protect all unborn children from elective abortions with no exceptions. But he acknowledged that sometimes lawmakers simply have to do what they can to save as many lives as possible. In this case, the heartbeat bill amendment could be that solution.
On Aug. 17, the state Supreme Court issued an order in a case stemming from abortion providers’ lawsuits against the state over the heartbeat law, agreeing to temporarily block enforcement of that act while the case plays out. In the order, the justices pointed out a few sentences in the 2021 heartbeat bill that seem to affirm a 1974 South Carolina law that codified the Roe v. Wade decision into state statute. That legislation allowed abortions for any reason through the second trimester and after for the physical or mental health of the mother. Another question, raised by the abortion providers suing over the law, is whether the privacy clause of the South Carolina Constitution guarantees a right to abortion. The amendment to the heartbeat bill that the Senate sent to the House removes those sentences but doesn’t address the right to privacy question. But Hall said he thinks the changes will be enough for the Supreme Court to allow the heartbeat act to take effect.
“If nothing gets done, there is the possibility that heartbeat gets struck down as it is on the court, we go back to something like a 20-week ban, and suddenly with a heartbeat bill in effect next door in Georgia, South Carolina becomes an abortion vacation destination in the Southeast,” said Hall.
Since July, Georgia’s law has protected babies in the state with detectable heartbeats. But some Georgia women are still obtaining abortions by traveling to neighboring states, including South Carolina. Baumgartner said he’s already seen increased traffic from Georgia at the Columbia Planned Parenthood. He estimated that at least a quarter of the license plates he and his team see in a given day are from there. He said these out-of-state women seem more determined to go through with their abortions, perhaps because of the distance they traveled to get there.
Counselor Valerie Berry said she recently spoke to a woman who arrived early in the morning after a three-hour drive from Atlanta. Even though they talked for about 15 minutes and the woman seemed to consider the alternative help Berry was offering, she eventually went in to her abortion appointment. “They really don’t want to take time to think about it. They don’t want to know how far along they are,” said Berry. “They just want to get this done. And they’re worried that, ‘If I take that time, I won’t have the opportunity to [abort] later.’”
Baumgartner said that when the court blocked enforcement of the heartbeat law, he and his team hoped the legislature would stop abortions altogether. He said he’d prefer a total ban, but if amending the heartbeat bill is all the legislature can do for now, Baumgartner said he’d welcome it “because it helps save lives quickly.”
Hall acknowledged the difficult calculus House lawmakers will face when they reconvene on Sept. 27. “We’re debating which lives are important. And how important they are, right?” he said. “It’s just weird when you break it down that way.”
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