SC Senate approves bill banning abortions after 19 weeks

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The state Senate on Tuesday adopted a compromise on an anti-abortion bill, allowing the chamber to move on to road funding in the session's waning weeks.

The chamber passed a bill that bans abortions past 19 weeks in a debate that pit abortion foes against each other. The 37-7 vote occurred after senators shut down a threatened filibuster by one of the Legislature's most strident abortion foes.

Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, pledged last Thursday to block passage because he opposed exceptions in cases of rape and incest, saying the unborn child has done nothing wrong other than to have a criminal for a father. He refused Tuesday to back down, bringing several activists from outside the state to help argue his points.

But other abortion foes — both inside the Senate and in the lobby — argued Bright's strict opposition would kill the bill's chances for another year.

If the Senate again defeated the compromise, Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg was ready to tie up the session's last nine days with more than 170 amendments. Hutto, who has blocked the bill for years, reiterated he was willing to let it pass with exceptions that also included cases of severe fetal anomalies in which the infant isn't expected to live without machines after birth. Such anomalies are generally detected around 20 weeks.

Bright said he could use Hutto's amendments as his own filibuster "arsenal," as he accused his fellow GOP senators of caving after just two days of debate.

"You want to fight? I'm going to fight," Bright said. "I'm going to fight with my own party."

Senators instead voted to shut down debate, and Bright ended up voting for the bill. But he blasted the state's anti-abortion activists for encouraging his removal from the podium.

Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council said his and other groups pushing for the bill have the same goal as Bright, but "strategically, we're poles apart."

"I'm glad we were able to move forward," said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston. "Even with the exceptions, a number of lives will be saved."

The bill only affects abortions performed in hospitals. The state's three abortion clinics don't perform the procedure past 13 weeks.

On average, fewer than 30 abortions yearly are performed at 20 weeks gestation or beyond, according to data since 1990 from the state's public health agency.

Opponents of the measure have long argued they involve wanted pregnancies that go horribly wrong and politicians should play no role in that decision.

"The measure does nothing to improve health outcomes for families and could have a chilling effect on doctors seeking to give their patients the best medical care possible," said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.

The bill still has a long way to go. Another vote is needed to return the bill to the House, which passed the bill in February. Its version allows exceptions only to save the mother's life or protect her from severe injury.

A compromise between the two chambers could be tough.

Rep. Wendy Nanney, the House's main sponsor, said she understands Bright's position but wants the bill to pass this year. She contends an abortion is likely pursued much sooner than five months in cases of rape and incest anyway, so "I'm not sure it's an issue in this bill."

The vote occurred as business leaders across the state urged senators to debate and pass a plan to fund road work.

Senators could take up a bill as early as Wednesday that would raise an additional $800 million annually for road and bridge construction by increasing the state's gas tax — unchanged since 1987 — as well as the sales tax cap on vehicles, plus raise fees on drivers licenses and alternative-fuel vehicles.

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