States across the South advance anti-abortion ‘heartbeat’ legislation

While states across the country have introduced anti-abortion legislation to outlaw the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, nowhere has the idea been more popular than in the South.

South Carolina on Wednesday became the latest state to advance legislation that would ban most abortions once a doctor can detect a heartbeat in the fetus, with its House of Representatives overwhelmingly approving the measure and sending it to the Senate.

Legislatures in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have approved similar legislation this year. The governors of Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have signed their bills into law.

Gov. Brian Kemp is likewise expected to sign the legislation in Georgia. Opponents including the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia say they will immediately challenge the measure in court.

At least 15 states, ranging from Maryland to Texas, are considering versions of “heartbeat” legislation in 2019.

A federal judge has already issued a preliminary injunction against the Kentucky law, and similar laws enacted in recent years in Iowa and North Dakota have also been struck down in the courts.

But much of the traction has been seen in Southern states this year, which Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said is not surprising.

“Many states in the South are really a solid part of the Bible Belt and tend to be more conservative anyway,” Huffmon said.

Huffmon said as political parties have become more polarized in the past 30 years, voters often elect candidates during the primaries that are far right or left in their positions.

“In the South, that means you’re getting extremely conservative Republicans listening to the extremely conservative segment of their party, and they’re pushing the bills that they think the people they’re hearing from want,” he said.

Polling in both Georgia and South Carolina showed that may not be the case for each state’s voters as a whole, at least on abortion.

Nearly 58% of Georgia voters responding to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll earlier this month said they believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Almost 38% of respondents said they believed the procedure should be illegal in all or most cases. Nearly 5% declined to answer the question.

Those findings were similar to a February Winthrop Poll of South Carolinians.

Like in Georgia’s legislation, South Carolina lawmakers voted to allow abortions after six weeks when the pregnancy is a product of rape or incest. The sponsor of South Carolina’s bill, Greenwood Republican state Rep. John McCravy, opposed the exceptions.

“Rape and incest are some of the most tragic things I can imagine,” McCravy said. “But I don’t think another life should be taken because of that bad act.”

South Carolina House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia said while he disagreed with the legislation, if it was going be forced through the chamber, the exceptions were necessary.

“Those are crocodile tears,” Rutherford said to McCravy. “You’re saying, ‘I’m so sorry for what happened to you, now endure this because I said so.’ ”

The amendment ultimately passed.

Anti-abortion activists feel empowered by a U.S. Supreme Court that has two new conservative justices, appointed by President Donald Trump, in the past two years.

The activists say they hope the new, more conservative bench will give them an opportunity to challenge the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion up until a fetus is “viable” — which generally is around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

There are already about 20 lawsuits involving abortion that the U.S. Supreme Court could consider that would challenge Roe v. Wade. Joshua Edmonds, the executive director of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, says he hopes Georgia’s bill will be the one to overturn the landmark decision.

In Georgia's pending law, most abortions would be banned after a doctor can detect a heartbeat, which is around six weeks into a pregnancy and before most women know they are pregnant.

What defines a heartbeat is at the center of dispute.

Supporters say it should be used to establish when life begins. Doctors who oppose the legislation, however, said what appears to be a heartbeat at six weeks signals the practice motions of developing tissues that could not on their own power a fetus without the mother.

Georgia still would allow later abortions in cases of rape, incest, if the life of the mother is in danger or in instances of “medical futility,” when a fetus would not be able to survive after birth. To obtain an abortion after six weeks because of rape or incest, a woman would have to file a police report.

The Georgia legislation also includes what many supporters call “personhood” language, which would extend legal rights to fertilized eggs.

Georgia’s pending law would allow parents, once a heartbeat is detected, to claim an embryo on their taxes as a dependent, and it would be counted toward the state’s population. A court could also order a father to pay child support after a heartbeat is detected.

“We think we have a better chance than most states, because of our state and circuit court makeups, to have favorable rulings as the case goes up the chain,” Edmonds said.

Vicki Ringer, a spokeswoman with Planned Parenthood South Atlantic — which includes South Carolina — said conservative lawmakers have been racing to get a law before the U.S. Supreme Court since Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed last year.

“That’s why we’re seeing so many right now,” she said. “Why it has to be every state trying to send a case? I don’t know.”

In Georgia, Planned Parenthood Southeast President and CEO Staci Fox calls the rush to pass anti-abortion laws a “race to the bottom.”

“This is all part of a coordinated strategy to outlaw safe, legal abortion by escalating one of these bans to the Supreme Court,” Fox said. “These lawmakers know these bans are unconstitutional, and they know they will cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees — they just don’t care.”

South Carolina still might not jump into the legal fray. The state’s self-imposed deadline to pass legislation out of at least one chamber passed earlier this month, meaning two-thirds of the state Senate would need to approve the proposal for it to become law this year.

Otherwise, lawmakers could take up the issue in January, when they return for the second year of the two-year legislative session.

The South Carolina Senate last year blocked legislation that would have established “personhood.”

Huffmon, the Winthrop political scientist, said it’s also possible that Republicans are making a “bigger play” in response to losses seen nationally during the 2018 midterm election.

He pointed to the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote for president due in part because Christian evangelical voters stayed home. In 2004, Republicans made opposition to same-sex marriage a central part of their platform, energizing the evangelical base.

“After the drubbing the Republicans took at the national level in 2018,” Huffmon said, “it may behoove them to get a strong turnout among the religious right and evangelicals by pushing an issue over the next few years that they support.”

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