There were two surprising and welcome victories for reproductive rights in Republican-dominated states, Nebraska and South Carolina, where abortion bans failed to advance. The debates in both states’ legislatures featured ad hoc sex education courses—good and bad—and displays of courage from a handful of Republicans.
There are just five women in the South Carolina legislature, three Republicans, one Democrat, and one independent, and they stuck together. Three male Republican senators helped continue their filibuster and defeat a near-total ban on abortion in a 22-21 vote. The legislation, already passed by the House, bans abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and fetal anomalies that would be fatal. Note the absence of an exception to protect the health of the mother. Doctors and other professionals providing banned abortions would be criminally liable for fines of $10,000 or two years in prison.
The South Carolina Senate women “each took the well and dove into scenarios of complications in pregnancies, health issues and the mental toll of dealing with law enforcement in cases of rape and pregnancy.” They also “explained the complexities of a reproductive system, the dangers of lack of access to contraception and the holes in the privacy statutes.”
The Nebraska legislature’s debate was far less edifying, if the performance from Republican State Sen. Steve Halloran is any indication. He bemoaned the fact that “abortion has become normal” in the last 50 years, apparently believing that people haven’t been finding ways to end pregnancy since people started getting pregnant. But really, he’s mad at phrases like “forcing a woman to be pregnant.”
“No one's forcing anyone to be pregnant,” he actually said out loud to a room full of lawmakers. “Pregnant's a voluntary act between two consenting adults.”
There was, however, one Nebraska Republican, who at least had a grasp on reality. Sen. Merv Riepe, a former hospital administrator, is not an abortion advocate. He has been pushing a 12-week ban and was opposed to the bill, which is a six-week ban. He argued that the doctors he previously worked with in his 40 years in the health care industry pointed out that many people don’t even know they’re pregnant in the first six weeks. A 12-week window would at least be given the extra time to consider their options, he said.
“I want stability, and I want something that can go forward,” Riepe said about his alternate bill. “I’d like to just have another shot at it next year to come up with hopefully some new bill.”
Riepe and another Republican, Sen. Justin Wayne, voted “present” on the procedural vote to move the bill forward, meaning that it failed to pass by just one vote. Wayne didn’t provide his reasons for not advancing the bill.
State Sen. Megan Hunt, an abortion rights advocate, credited Riepe for bringing medical science to the debate. “I always knew there would be a path for this outcome,” Hunt said. “I knew that this could happen, but I knew it would be hard.”
Meanwhile, back in South Carolina, Republican Katrina Shealy blasted her colleagues for taking up this bill, but refusing to consider a hate crimes bill inspired by the killing of Sen. Clementa Pinckney in the Charleston Mother Emanuel Church Massacre. She also called out their hypocrisy in declaring themselves “pro-life.”
"The biggest proponents of the Human Life Protection Act are also the same proponents of constitutional carry, school choice, parental rights and regulating vaccines for everyone, especially children," Shealy said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Independent Sen. Mia McLeod, who had already revealed that she’s a survivor of rape in another abortion debate, talked about it again because she said women have to share such personal and intimate information to “enlighten and engage” men.
“Just as rape is about power and control, so is this total ban,” McLeod said Thursday. “Those who continue to push legislation like this are raping us again with their indifference, violating us again with their righteous indignation, taunting us again with their insatiable need to play God while they continue to pass laws that are ungodly.”
It was just by the skin of their teeth, in both states, that their limited abortion rights were preserved. Both states are key because they are both havens for people seeking abortions from surrounding states that have near or total abortion bans. They’re also key because they are Republican states–while voters in Kansas and Kentucky upheld abortion rights with citizens' initiatives, forced birth proponents have been romping in state legislatures. This might be the first indication that at least some Republicans have been paying attention to what voters have been saying.
The South Carolina legislature has just one more week in session, and the women of the Senate used the procedural tool at their disposal–the unlimited ability to talk about an issue for as long as they want. They promised they would keep talking and prevent the Senate from wrapping up any other business for the remainder of the session. That promise means it’s not likely the bill will come back this session.
The Nebraska session ends in June, and right now, it doesn’t look like the hard right is inclined to work with Riepe on a less stringent bill. So for the moment, the effort appears to be over for this year.
But the forced birth zealots are not going to accept defeat in either state. They’ll be back next year.
Can we have fairer, more representative elections in the U.S.? Absolutely, says Deb Otis on this week's episode of "The Downballot." Otis, the director of research at FairVote, tells us about her organization's efforts to advocate for two major reforms—ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—and the prospects for both. RCV, which is growing in popularity, not only helps ensure candidates win with majorities but can lower the temperature by encouraging cross-endorsements. PR, meanwhile, would give voters a stronger voice, especially when they're a minority in a dark red or dark blue area.
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