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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
George Chidi

Complete abortion ban in South Carolina more likely after primaries

A young woman with long red hair and glasses hold a neon pink posterboard that says in black lettering: You can't ban abortions, you can only ban safe abortions.
An abortion-rights supporter outside the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, on 7 July 2022. Photograph: Meg Kinnard/AP

The right to legal abortion in South Carolina is in a “dire” condition, said the state senator Penry Gustafson, who lost her seat on Tuesday to a primary challenger prepared to vote to ban abortion at conception.

Gustafson is one of five female lawmakers dubbed the “sister senators” who blocked legislation to outlaw abortion from the point of conception in the state. The three Republicans among them – Gustafson, Sandy Senn and Katrina Shealy – each drew male primary challengers who competed for conservative primary voters seeking more restrictive abortion access.

Senn also lost on Tuesday to a primary challenger, state representative Matt Leber, by 31 votes. Results in that race will go through a mandatory recount.

If two or more senators are replaced by supporters of a complete abortion ban, opponents will no longer have enough votes in the senate to block it. South Carolina currently has a six-week “heartbeat” standard, which the group of female senators have said they believe is too restrictive and unpopular even among South Carolina conservatives.

Leber questions that argument.

“I think our current abortion laws reflect the values of South Carolina and the low country in general,” Leber said.

South Carolina’s ban an abortion after embryonic cardiac activity can be detected provides exceptions for rape up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, for incest up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, in cases of fatal fetal anomaly and in cases protecting the mother’s life.

South Carolina’s supreme court struck down the state’s six-week abortion ban in January 2023, ruling it a violation of the right to privacy under the state constitution despite the US supreme court overturning Roe v Wade’s abortion protections a year earlier. State lawmakers called a special session in May 2023 to draft new legislation.

The three Republican “sister senators”, none of whom can credibly be described as pro-choice, had each voted for the original “heartbeat” legislation, but argued in the special session for fewer restrictions on abortion and blocked legislation calling for a ban at contraception. The South Carolina state senate requires three-fifths of its 46 members to vote to end debate; three Republican crossovers were enough to filibuster the bill.

Asked whether he would vote for a bill barring abortion at conception, Leber replied: “Well, I am a Christian. I do believe that life begins at conception. I just don’t think we have that mandate.” But he said he would not discuss hypothetical legislation.

Only six women currently serve among South Carolina’s 46 state senators, among the smallest proportion of any state, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Shealy, who has served in the senate for 12 years, came in first in a three-way race but did not win a majority. She will face Carlisle Kennedy, an assistant solicitor, in a 25 June runoff.

Gustafson flipped a traditionally Democratic district four years ago. After legislative redistricting, she lost much of the territory where she was most familiar to voters. She lost a primary challenge 82-18 on Tuesday night to Allen Blackmon, a second-term Lancaster county council member.

Her loss represents political regression, she said.

“South Carolina is in trouble,” she said. “We’ve been set back … I don’t know how much time, maybe decades … in our advances with women and our voices representing our state.”

Recounts rarely overturn election results. Officials will begin retabulating the roughly 8,000 votes after the election is certified by the state on Friday, officials said.

Turnout in the primary statewide was about 11%.

“Moderate Republicans didn’t vote,” Gustafson said. “That was particularly disheartening and disruptive.” Low-turnout primaries create results that reward more politically extreme candidates and more politically extreme messaging.

The well-watched race between Senn and Leber, in the suburban middle-class outskirts of fast-growing Charleston, was looked to as a bellwether for conservative appetites on the abortion question. But it was also a bruising affair.

In a Trump-inflected campaign, Leber described Senn as a quasi-Democrat who was insufficiently anti-abortion.

Senn argued that Leber was a political extremist with connections to militia groups – which Leber denied – and argued erroneously that Leber had faked his college degree. Senn did not return calls and email seeking comment.

Gustafson described Leber in stark terms as a purveyor of radical rhetoric.

“Matt Leber is a nutcase. He is scary,” she said. “He wants women who get an abortion to be in prison. He is awful. I don’t know what the hell he’s going to do in our state senate. Our senate is not like that.”

In response to Gustafson’s comments, Leber said: “It is not my position that women should be punished for abortions … ever.”

National observers have been looking for signs of a liberal backlash to the fall of Roe v Wade protections, as was seen in referendums in Kansas, Ohio and elsewhere erecting new abortion-rights protections. But that backlash is not happening within Republican primary circles, at least not in South Carolina, Leber said.

“There was a backlash,” Leber said. “And Senator Senn lost her seat.”

• This article was amended on 13 June 2024. The South Carolina state senate has 46 members, not 48.

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