Local and State News

S.C. Abortion Wars Resume Over 20-Week Ban

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

Update: The House Judiciary subcommittee charged with conducting hearings on H. 4223 approved the bill in Tuesday afternoon’s hearing by a vote of 2-1, forwarding it back to full committee for further consideration.

A bill that would ban abortions after a fetus reaches 20 weeks appears to be acquiring sufficient steam to roll past the opposition of pro-choice advocates, doctors and prior court rulings in the S.C. House of Representatives.

The 20-week abortion ban, the popular legislation of the day for pro-life forces, has passed in other red states, and it’s an election year for South Carolina representatives. So never mind that similar bans have been challenged and struck down by courts in a few of those states, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the resulting pro-life appeal coming out of Arizona — or that only about 1 percent of abortions are performed that late in term, and those are usually compelled by evidence of birth defects or other health complications.

No fewer than 35 House Republicans have signed onto H. 4223, with Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) being the most recent to add his name.

Current South Carolina law bans abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy. It also requires a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and mandatory counseling to discourage the woman from having the abortion.

The proposed legislation is predicated on hotly disputed science that indicates a fetus is capable of feeling pain 20 weeks after fertilization.
According to a press release issued by the National Right to Life Committee after a hearing on the bill earlier this month, former Columbia College professor and neuroscientist Margaret Brinley told lawmakers that research shows changing “catecholamine levels” in the fetus’ blood when it’s subjected to stress, which her camp has interpreted as proof of pain, as it would be during prenatal surgeries. Brinley said it’s possible that fetuses even feel pain more acutely than adults.

Brinley also testified that when conducting lab experiments on rats, she had been required to account for her efforts to spare the animals from any pain. “Think about the difference between a rat and a human being,” she said, and urged lawmakers to “always err on the side of humanity.”

Meanwhile, pro-choice advocates such as Planned Parenthood Health System’s Melissa Reed criticize their opponents’ lack of support from the medical community as evidence that pro-life advocates are playing politics with women’s reproductive health. They then point to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which emphatically opposes H. 4223 and “other legislative proposals that are not based on sound science or that attempt to prescribe how physicians should care for their individual patients.”

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists cites an extensive 2005 review of scientific research in concluding that “fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”

On the legal front, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina has attacked H. 4223 as plainly unconstitutional, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the Constitution protects a woman’s ability to make reproductive decisions on the grounds of her constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.

The ACLU points out that Roe v. Wade explicitly prohibits states from banning abortions before a fetus is viable, or developed enough to survive outside the womb. “Let me be clear,” states the ACLU’s South Carolina Director Victoria Middleton, “H.4223 violates the Constitution because it bans abortion at 20 weeks, which is before viability.”

Rep. Wendy Nanney (R-Greenville), who introduced the bill, said she was too busy to talk to a reporter on Monday and couldn’t be reached on Tuesday, but, according to Ashley Crary of the South Carolina Coalition for Health Families, a pro-choice group, Nanney has explicitly opposed including exceptions for rape and incest in her bill.

A subcommittee hearing on the legislation, also called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, was scheduled to resume Tuesday, as Free Times went to press, after advocates on both sides packed out the earlier hearing, convincing legislators to set aside more time for testimony.

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