COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Senate debated Thursday whether to ban nearly all abortions in the state, a surprise move suggested by a Democrat who has long fought abortion restrictions.
Sen. Brad Hutto told Republicans if the bill passed he was going to give them what they wanted — the most direct way to challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned state bans on abortions. No other state would have such a broad abortion ban.
"I've heard all along that y'all want a challenge to Roe v. Wade. This is a straight up challenge," the Orangeburg Democrat said.
But there may have been more local political considerations too. The ban was placed on a bill that originally made illegal just a rare procedure called dismemberment abortion. And senators on Thursday narrowly failed to force a vote on the new proposal.
With just three regular days left in a session set to end May 10, senators voted to meet in a rare Friday session instead of taking their typical four-day weekend. They haven't dealt with several pressing issues including bills dealing with a $9 billion debacle after two utilities abandoned 10 years of planning and construction of two nuclear reactors.
If the abortion bill passes the Senate, it would head to the more conservative House, but a leader of the chamber said he doesn't think his colleagues will support the full ban — at least until the U.S. Supreme Court takes up another state's case.
"Unless Roe v. Wade is overturned, the General Assembly must work within existing legal parameters to increase protections for the life of the unborn rather than knowingly pass unconstitutional legislation," said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill of Rock Hill.
Several other states have further restricted abortions this year. Mississippi currently has the most restrictive law in the country banning abortions after 15 weeks, although that law was immediately challenged in court. Louisiana lawmakers are considering a similar proposal.
Iowa's Legislature just passed a bill banning all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected around five weeks after conception. It is heading to the governor's desk.
The three states would allow officials to revoke medical licenses for doctors who perform illegal abortions, and do not rule out criminal prosecution. But those states all provide immunity for a woman who has an abortion.
South Carolina's measure provides no protection for mothers or doctors.
Democrats also suggested it could even ban the use of birth control pills or intrauterine devices.
The South Carolina proposal began as a bill outlawing a type of abortion in which a doctor pulls a fetus apart before removing it from the womb. That procedure was performed 22 times in 2016, out of in 5,736 abortions in South Carolina. Doctors say it is only done on fetuses who can't live outside the womb, or if the mother's life is in danger.
The leader of Republicans in the Senate welcomed the chance to challenge the 1973 abortion ruling.
"It's a guaranteed court action," Senate Majority leader Shane Massey of Edgefield said. "I think everybody really recognizes what we're getting to is a judicial determination of the constitutionality of it."
And if the bill ended up on his desk, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said he would sign it.
"Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in," said McMaster, who is seeking re-election this year and has four challengers in the Republican primary. "Any bill that reduces abortions in South Carolina, I am for, and I will sign — including that one."