Members of the South Carolina State House are considering a bill that would make a woman who has an abortion in the state eligible for the death penalty.
The “South Carolina Prenatal Equal Protection Act of 2023” would amend the state’s code of laws, redefining “person” to include a fertilized egg at the point of conception, affording that zygote “equal protection under the homicide laws of the state” — up to and including the ultimate punishment: death.
The bill was authored by Rep. Rob Harris, a registered nurse and member of the Freedom Caucus; it has attracted 21 co-sponsors to date. (Two former co-sponsors — Rep. Matt Leber and Rep. Kathy Landing — asked to have their names removed as sponsors of the bill. Leber and Landing could not be reached for comment.)
Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican who represents South Carolina in the U.S. House, took to the floor on Friday to call attention to the bill, which she sees as part of a “deeply disturbing” trend. (Multiple Texas lawmakers have floated the idea of executing women who have abortions in the past. Those bills, proposed before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, failed.)
“To see this debate go to the dark places, the dark edges, where it has gone on both sides of the aisle, has been deeply disturbing to me as a woman, as a female legislator, as a mom, and as a victim of rape. I was raped as a teenager at the age of 16,” Mace said. “This debate ought to be a bipartisan debate where we balance the rights of women and we balance the right to life. But we aren’t having that conversation here in D.C. We aren’t having that conversation at home. We aren’t having that conversation with fellow state lawmakers.”
Asked about exceptions for victims of rape, which Mace raised in her remarks on the floor, Harris told Rolling Stone, “There are other bills with exceptions, but will do little or nothing to save the lives of pre-born children.” He went on list exceptions the bill does contain, including: “a ‘duress’ defense for women who are pressured/threatened to have an abortion” and “medical care to save the mother’s life… The functional language in that scenario is whether the baby’s life is forfeited ‘unintentionally’ or ‘intentionally’.” (Asked if he saw any irony between being a member of the so-called “Freedom Caucus” while proposing such harsh restrictions on reproductive freedoms, Harris responded simply: “Murder of the pre-born is harsh.”)
In 2021, legislators in South Carolina — which has experienced difficulty obtaining drugs to carry out executions by lethal injection — revived the electric chair and firing squads as methods to kill inmates convicted of capital crimes. (The South Carolina Supreme Court is currently weighing the constitutionality of that law after a lower court found lawmakers who passed the law “ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency.”)
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Since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Republican lawmakers in South Carolina’s House and Senate have failed to agree on new abortion restrictions. Republicans in the House have insisted on outlawing abortion at conception, while the GOP majority in the Senate has put forth a proposal that would ban the practice at around six weeks gestation.
Abortion is currently legal in South Carolina up to 21 weeks and 6 days; a 2021 ban outlawing abortion at six weeks was struck down by the state’s Supreme Court in January. Self-managed abortion — obtaining medication to terminate a pregnancy without a doctor’s supervision — is illegal in the state, punishable with a fine of $1000 and up to two years in prison. Earlier this month, a Greenville woman was arrested under that law for taking pills to end a pregnancy in 2021.
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