The House voted 70-31 to give the bill second reading after more than five hours of debate. One last routine vote could take place as early as Thursday before the bill heads to the Senate.
Other legislatures in Kentucky, Ohio and Georgia have passed fetal heartbeat abortion bills this year. But in South Carolina, even if the bill passes the House, it would need a two-thirds vote from the less conservative Senate because it had missed a legislative deadline. And time was running short, with only seven working days remaining in the legislative session after Wednesday.
Supporters called for final House and Senate passage, saying all life should be considered sacred once a heartbeat can be detected.
But much of Wednesday's debate arose from opposition by Democratic lawmakers, who questioned the motives of debating a bill that would likely face an immediate legal challenge and be ruled unconstitutional by the courts.
Democratic Rep. David Mack said lawmakers take up proposed abortion restrictions year after year and need to refrain from passing laws concerning women's bodies.
"This waste of time is just very sickening to me," the North Charleston lawmaker said.
The bill, drafted by Republican Rep. John McCravy, would require medical professionals to test for a detectable heartbeat before any abortion is performed.
McCravy said that if a heartbeat is detected, the bill would require the medical professional to ask the mother if she would like to hear the heartbeat and then advise the woman of the chances of her successfully carrying the pregnancy to full term.
A heartbeat typically can be detected around the sixth week of pregnancy, so early that many women are sometimes unaware they are pregnant.
"We're forcing women from across the state of South Carolina to fight the issue of time," Democratic Rep. Justin Bamberg said.
Bamberg proposed a number of amendments to filibuster the legislation, a similar strategy he took during a contentious debate during a House committee meeting earlier this month. They all have failed. The Bamberg Democrat's proposals included allowing registered nurses, physician assistance and telemedicine providers to perform abortions. Other provisions would have created a fund to pay for women to travel outside of South Carolina to get an abortion, as well as a fund for physicians to be trained on using the ultrasound to detect the heartbeat.
"We can be so comfortable here in Columbia dictating what women can and cannot do with their bodies and there's never a discussion of how this can impact their pocketbook or checkbook," Bamberg said.
Bamberg ultimately withdrew all his proposed amendments, saying he did so out of respect to the leadership and their colleagues after what they deemed inevitable House approval of the measure.
"It's frustrating to come to Columbia every year and every single year we have to take up something regarding abortion," Bamberg said. "Let's make sure we're doing every single thing possible to invest in, fight for the children that are already here, that are suffering or sick and dying, and that's all I ask for the body."
The only amendment to pass after several hours of debate allowed for exemptions to the ban in cases of rape or incest, proposed by Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of Charleston. McCravy opposed that amendment to his bill.
"The question is whether another life should be taken because of a bad act," McCravy told fellow lawmakers. "Vote your conscious on this amendment."
While Democratic lawmakers supported expanding the exceptions, they criticized language in the proposal that would require physicians to use their judgment to determine whether it was their "belief" that the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. They said they wondered why a doctor would not trust a woman about that kind of trauma.
"I apologize to all the women in South Carolina who have been raped, who have been subjected to incest," Democrat John King of Rock Hill said. He protested what he called the actions of "the men who sit in these chambers here and across the hall who feel it is in our interest to make decisions for the women of South Carolina and especially for women who have been raped or subject to incest."
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