South Carolina

Abortion ban that gives no exceptions for birth defects blasted by SC moms, doctors

Battle lines drawn in South Carolina’s abortion debate

Republican-dominated states across the country are tightening restrictions on abortion. South Carolina's House of Representatives passed a "heartbeat bill" in 2019, and lawmakers can debate the legislation in January.
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Republican-dominated states across the country are tightening restrictions on abortion. South Carolina's House of Representatives passed a "heartbeat bill" in 2019, and lawmakers can debate the legislation in January.

Lacey Layne was more than 18 weeks pregnant when an ultrasound provided the worst possible news.

It was December 2017, and her unborn son, Evan, had a neural defect that was causing his brain to grow out of his skull. Facing South Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban, she and her husband had to quickly decide between carrying the pregnancy to term — knowing their son could be stillborn or die shortly after birth — or having an abortion.

“I chose to end the pregnancy to avoid the possibility of my baby knowing only a short life outside my body, filled with pain,” the educator testified Tuesday at the S.C. State House. “I chose peace for Evan because it was the best decision for him, myself, my husband and his big brother. I can’t even imagine the emotional turmoil we would have faced had I been forced to carry to term due to restrictive abortion laws.”

Layne was among more than a dozen mothers, doctors and women’s rights activists who testified Tuesday against a proposed “fetal heartbeat” ban that would outlaw abortions in South Carolina after about six weeks of pregnancy. The proposal — unlike the 20-week abortion ban passed in 2016 — includes no exceptions for fetal anomalies like Layne’s, which often are not detected until later in the pregnancy.

They were countered in the daylong hearing by conservative pastors, crisis pregnancy center directors and Republican lawmakers who stressed the importance of protecting unborn children who can’t protect themselves.

The bill, which passed the S.C. House earlier this year, now is making its way through the GOP-controlled state Senate, even as that chamber’s Democrats vow to filibuster as long as necessary if the proposal reaches the Senate floor in 2020.

The proposed fetal heartbeat abortion ban, or H. 3020, would criminalize abortion after a heartbeat has been detected in the fetus. That usually takes place around the sixth week of pregnancy, sometimes before women realize they are pregnant.

Similar bills have passed in nine states, but they haven’t gone into effect in any of them because of court challenges. Republicans who filed the bill acknowledge it openly defies the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in an attempt to overturn the 1973 ruling that affirmed abortion rights.

‘Child sacrifice’

The Senate hearing Tuesday was packed with supporters and opponents, including many who had signed up to speak. Dozens who couldn’t fit were sent to an overflow room to watch the hearing on a screen.

The hearing — in which dozens of anti-abortion and pro-choice speakers alternated at the microphone — pitted doctors against pastors, women’s rights activists against conservative lawmakers and women who have had abortions against pro-life activists whose parents decided not to do so.

Pro-life speakers appealed to lawmakers’ humanity, describing abortion as violence and murder.

Greenwood pastor Tony Foster called abortion a “genocide” that has disproportionately affected African Americans.

Rebecca Kiessling, a Michigan-based pro-life activist invited to speak by state Sen. Richard Cash, R-Anderson, described abortion as “child sacrifice” and said the bill should be amended to delete a section that allows abortions of pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

“It’s barbaric to kill an innocent person for someone else’s crime,” she told the panel.

Alexia Newman, the longtime director of a crisis pregnancy center in Spartanburg, testified that she has “seen how people respond when they hear that heartbeat,” a sound she says conveys the gravity of human life.

State Rep. Stewart Jones, R-Greenwood, noted that the Declaration of Independence held that every person is entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” stressing that “life” was listed first.

“It’s the most important issue that we will deal with,” Jones said.

‘No room for legislators’

But opponents excoriated the bill because — along with outlawing a majority of abortions performed in South Carolina — it lacks exceptions for birth defects and, they said, criminalizes doctors who perform abortions to save the pregnant woman’s life.

(The bill allows doctors to perform abortions to save a woman’s life, but opponents argued the bill’s language doesn’t clearly define when that is permissible, causing confusion in emergency rooms.)

Susan Dunn, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, shared that she is a survivor of an ectopic pregnancy. She said she had no idea she was pregnant until a visit to the emergency room.

There was no time for her doctors to seek legal advice about whether they could be charged with a crime for performing an abortion, she said.

“This is not academic to me,” she said. “I easily could have died.”

Obstetricians and gynecologists told stories of patients whose escalating pregnancy complications could have become deadly if H. 3020 had been in effect.

“This bill is improper interference in the doctor-patient relationship” by limiting what a doctor can do in medical emergencies, testified Amy Crockett, vice chairwoman of the S.C. section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

A few women, like Layne, shared their own stories.

“I am grateful that abortion was an option so that we could provide the compassionate end of life care that spared my baby, myself and my family from further pain,” Layne said. “No woman should have this personal decision made for them by politicians.”

Others, such as Marta Bliese, told lawmakers they shouldn’t have to share their personal stories to stop bad legislation.

“I have been the person in the exam room,” she said. “There is no room for legislators in that room. Do not tie my hands or my doctor’s hands. I am angry.”

The Senate subcommittee did not vote on the legislation Tuesday.

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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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