- Associated Press - Thursday, March 13, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Conservative legislators’ strong push to end abortions in South Carolina was boosted Thursday when a Senate panel advanced a bill that would require doctors who perform the procedure to have privileges to admit patients to nearby hospitals, which can sometimes be difficult.

The bill moved to the Senate Medical Affairs Committee without debate or even a vote. Its sponsor, Sen. Lee Bright, was blunt about his intentions, noting a similar law in Texas has forced many clinics to close. Since its adoption last summer, 19 have closed there, leaving 24.

In South Carolina, abortions are provided at three clinics, in Charleston, Greenville and Columbia. Over the last decade, the number of abortions performed in South Carolina has ranged between 6,080 and 7,545 yearly, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“I’ll do anything I can do to further restrict the culture of death,” said Bright, R-Roebuck, who’s among several Republicans challenging U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Advancing a bill to full committee without a vote is highly unusual, but that’s what its chairman, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, requested.

“Something this important and controversial needs full committee scrutiny,” said Peeler, R-Gaffney.

The admitting privilege requirement has become a favored tool for anti-abortion lawmakers across the country to close clinics. In Mississippi, a federal judge has blocked enforcement of a similar requirement because it would shut down the state’s last clinic. Alabama passed the requirement last year, and Oklahoma lawmakers are considering a similar measure.

Most doctors do not have or need admitting privileges, and hospitals usually only grant them to doctors who routinely have patients in need of hospital care.

In Columbia, a separate Senate panel heard fiery testimony Thursday on two so-called “personhood” bills, both Bright‘s, which would outlaw abortion outright by granting legal rights at conception. The subcommittee took no action, as time ran out before senators had to be on the floor. Another hearing is expected.

“If you don’t protect these children, their innocent blood is in your hands, and South Carolina will continue to be under the judgment of God!” said Johnny Gardner, who regularly greets legislators at the Statehouse with anti-abortion signs and dolls in strollers. “Any decision that does not protect life is in violation of our Constitution.”

Steve Lefemine, another regular Statehouse activist who carries signs of aborted fetuses, said the bill will end rather than incrementally regulate abortion in South Carolina, where anti-abortion legislation is debated yearly.

Beyond inviting a lawsuit, pro-choice advocates warn, a law that gives a fertilized egg the rights of a person will affect more than abortion, to include fertility treatments, contraception, and stem cell research.

“People are not considering a whole range of treatments that are affected,” said Victoria Middleton with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Abortion rights activists also opposed a bill dubbed the “Pregnant Women’s Protection Act” as a back-door attempt to end abortions. It states that a pregnant woman has a right to defend a threat to her unborn child using deadly force. It’s the definition of “unborn child,” beginning with conception, that concerns them.

“While it seems to have wonderful intentions … it’s simply a personhood bill disguised as a stand your ground law,” said Emma Davidson of South Carolina Coalition for Healthy Families.

Without that definition, opponents say, the bill is simply unnecessary and redundant. Since 2006, state law has given residents the right to use deadly force to defend themselves against an attacker wherever they are, as long as they have a right to be there.

The subcommittee also took no action on that bill.

On the House side, a bill banning abortion beyond 19 weeks of pregnancy is expected to be debated on the House floor later this month. Supporters are undeterred that a similar bill in Arizona has been declared unconstitutional, as they hope the bill’s passage in South Carolina ultimately leads to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supporters say the bill is about protecting fetuses from pain. Opponents say such late-term abortions are rare and generally occur in wanted pregnancies that go horribly wrong. According to Planned Parenthood, South Carolina clinics don’t provide abortions beyond 19 weeks, meaning the bill affects only those performed in a hospital.

“Health care decisions should be left to a woman, her family, her doctor, and her faith - not politicians,” said Melissa Reed of Planned Parenthood.

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