The heartbeat of a pro-life bill
How voters and lobbyists in South Carolina helped pass the country’s newest heartbeat law
When a South Carolina House committee debated a key piece of pro-life legislation on Feb. 9, Holly Gatling, the executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life, didn’t want to watch it over livestream. She arrived early to claim one of the 12 spectator seats and watch the progress of the heartbeat bill she had promoted for years. She listened for 2½ hours as representatives discussed the lifesaving bill and opponents claimed it burdened women with invasive ultrasounds.
On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed the heatbeat bill, which protects all babies with a detectable heartbeat from abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed it on Thursday. Court battles will likely tie up the law’s enforcement, but pro-life advocates hope it will end up before the Supreme Court, where a conservative majority could overturn Roe v. Wade. The persistent, behind-the-scenes work of lobbyists like Gatling made the legislation a priority.
South Carolina pro-lifers have tried to get the heartbeat bill passed for years. Gatling, who has advocated for unborn babies for 27 years, started her 2021 busy season when the South Carolina General Assembly convened in January. She describes the work of a pro-life lobbyist as that of an educator. She attended hours of hearings, gave testimony, and recruited healthcare professionals and leaders of pro-life organizations as witnesses.
In prior years, the pro-life measure didn’t quite have enough support in the state Senate. Gatling remembers attending a meeting for a similar bill in 2019 that lasted about six hours and didn’t adjourn until 9 p.m. That heartbeat bill passed the House, but died in the Senate in early 2020 without a vote after COVID-19 shutdowns pushed it to the legislative backburner. But even if the legislation had made it to a Senate vote then, Democrats had enough seats to block it with a filibuster. A Democratic filibuster stretching late into a spring night in 2018 killed another bill to protect babies from dismemberment abortions. “Pro-life voters got very tired of seeing pro-life legislation fail … in a Republican-controlled Senate,” Gatling said. “The answer was to give the Republicans more strength.”
That’s exactly what South Carolina voters did in November 2020. South Carolina Citizens for Life used direct mail and social media campaigns to spur on voters, and the group issued surveys to assess the pro-life positions of new candidates. Pro-life Republicans won three formerly Democratic Senate seats. Those three new senators were among the 30 that voted in favor of the heartbeat bill on Jan. 28, surpassing the three-fourths majority necessary to break a filibuster and send the bill to the House of Representatives.
Planned Parenthood announced a lawsuit to stop enforcement of the bill just hours before McMaster signed it. About a dozen other states have passed similar bills, and court battles have so far prevented all of them from taking effect.
But Gatling said she’s hopeful about the future of the legislation. “The Supreme Court has changed,” she said, referring to the recent addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Gatling and many other pro-lifers hope that the justices will reconsider the standard for legal abortion and uphold state heartbeat laws by recognizing a baby’s development of a heartbeat as a more reasonable cutoff for abortion than viability outside the womb.
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