The legislation, co-sponsored by 34 Republicans, asserts that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks old. Doctors who disregard the ban could be charged with a felony.
Rep. Wendy Nanney, the main sponsor, said as a mother of five children, she wants to protect children from pain.
“That’s what a mother does,” said Nanney, R-Greenville. Asked whether a mother should decide based on her situation, she added, “I think the child is the most important thing, and the fact it feels pain is very important to me.”
Doctors with the South Carolina chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the bill’s supporters are looking only at studies that support their conclusion, while other reviews have found a fetus does not feel pain before 24 weeks. The doctors point to lethal or serious fetal problems that often aren’t diagnosed before 20 weeks.
“Once the diagnosis is confirmed, many couples need additional time to make a well-informed and careful decision,” reads the joint statement signed by three doctors.
The proposed ban provides an exception only when the mother’s life is in danger, and in such a case, the doctor must end the pregnancy in a way that gives the fetus the best chance for survival. Asked why she made no exception for rape or incest victims, Nanney said those pregnancies are normally aborted before 20 weeks.
A House panel postponed a vote Thursday on the measure. It expects to resume discussion later this month.
Victoria Middleton with the American Civil Liberties Union calls the bill an unconstitutional political interference in a woman’s private medical decision. Such late-term abortions are rare and generally occur in wanted pregnancies that go horribly wrong, she said.
“It’s callous to impose one rule on every woman regardless of circumstances,” Middleton said. “This bill is wrong, not just because it is unconstitutional, but because it puts politics above a woman’s health.”
Sloane Whelan, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Health Systems, said its South Carolina clinics don’t provide abortions beyond 19 weeks, so the bill would affect women who have the procedure done at a hospital, often “under heartbreaking and tragic circumstances.”
According to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, 25 abortions were performed in South Carolina at 20 or more weeks gestation in 2012, the latest data available. Between 2008 and 2012, the annual number ranges from 11 to 37.
While Middleton contends the bill would go against decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, anti-abortion activists say they believe the nation’s highest court would rule in the state’s favor. They argue the bill is not about a fetus’ viability, but rather whether states can protect the unborn from pain.
“We would welcome a challenge,” said Mary Spaulding Balch, state legislative director with the National Right to Life Committee.
Ten states already have enacted 20-week abortion bans: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas. Laws in three other states – Arizona, Georgia, and Idaho – have not been enacted, pending the outcome of lawsuits, according to Planned Parenthood Health Systems.
Abortion foes believe South Carolina’s proposal would stand a better chance of getting heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The bill’s supporters include the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, which covers the entire state. The Most Rev. Bishop Guglielmone asked legislators to quickly pass “this important and life-saving legislation.”