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South Carolina places stringent new restrictions on abortions

South Carolina is the latest state to place tough new restrictions on abortions. It is part of a renewed focus on abortion access with a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Gavin Jackson, a public affairs reporter for South Carolina ETV, and Mary Ziegler, a Florida State University law professor, join John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    South Carolina is the latest state to place tough new restrictions on abortions. It is part of a renewed focus on abortion access with a new conservative majority at the Supreme Court.

    John Yang has the story.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the bill South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed today bans abortions after weeks of pregnancy if a fetal heartbeat is detected. The only exceptions are rape, incest and to protect the health of the mother.

    Nearly a dozen other states have passed similar laws, but all had been blocked by the courts, and Planned Parenthood has already sued to block this one.

    But at the signing ceremony, McMaster predicted that anti-abortion forces would prevail.

  • Gov. Henry McMaster:

    If there is not a right to life, then what rights is there? What rights exist, if not the elementary, fundamental, profound right to life?

    So, we are here to protect that. And this step we take today was long in coming and monumental in consequence. But our battles are not over. Yet I believe that the dawn of victory is upon us.

  • John Yang:

    The state legislatures across the country have increasingly become the front lines of the struggle in the debate over abortion.

    Gavin Jackson is a public affairs reporter for South Carolina ETV, which is a network of PBS stations in South Carolina. And Mary Ziegler is a Florida State University law professor. She's the author of "Abortion and the Law in America: Roe V. Wade to the Present."

    Thank you both for joining us.

    Gavin, let me start with you.

    It sounds like it was a wild and woolly session yesterday when the House finally passed this bill. What was it like? Give us a sense of what it was like in the chamber.

  • Gavin Jackson:

    Well, it was definitely a unique in day in the chamber.

    But I first want to start with how we got here, John. And that's been we are six weeks now into our legislative session. This bill has been zooming through the General Assembly. It was the first bill introduced in the Senate, first bill filed in the Senate, and then had multiple hearings, got right through the committee process, got on the Senate floor, and headed right over to the House, where they also had the same kind of committee process, got through that really quickly.

    And the whole key here too in the House was not to amend this bill. Lawmakers wanted to get this to the governor's desk as soon as possible. So, we did see some contentiousness on the floor yesterday among some Republicans, actually, one Republican lawmaker, a fringe Republican lawmaker, who got a little upset because he wasn't able to — wasn't able to file any amendments to this bill that would take out the exceptions for rape and incest, because a lot of Republican lawmakers want to go a little bit further with this bill.

    But, of course, they wouldn't have had the support to do that. So this was kind of the compromise. And you heard from the governor there in that clip saying, hey, this is the first step. We can keep going forward. Of course, this step is still kind of pending, depending on what's going on the courts at this point.

    As you said, there's already a court challenge in place. So, while abortions are halted right now temporarily in the state, that could — the injunction could be granted as soon as tomorrow afternoon.

  • John Yang:

    This is not the first time that South Carolina lawmakers have tried to pass this bill. What was the difference this time?

    And do the lawmakers see themselves as part of a national push, a national drive against abortion?

  • Gavin Jackson:

    Yes, John, this was — it's no big secret about lawmakers here in South Carolina wanting to get to this to the Supreme Court.

    Unfortunately, we're behind a few states, with bills already going, laws already going to the Supreme Court for challenge. I think we're the first one on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to try and get one to the Supreme Court, but, again, several other states, including Georgia, passing a similar bill like this law, like this to go to the Supreme Court.

    But, right now, it was really trying to make good on some campaign promises. We did see Republicans pick up seats in the Senate and the House last November. We saw lawmakers really wanting to make a big splash. We have the governor up for reelection next year.

    All this comes into a good storm of them uniting, essentially, behind a major legislative victory, which is the abortion ban. And that's something that we might be seeing a lot of things going on at the national level with the future the Republican Party. In South Carolina, the Republican Party is united behind what just took place today in South Carolina.

  • John Yang:

    Mary Ziegler, let's talk a little bit about that national picture.

    How — place this South Carolina law in context for us, in terms of restrictiveness in the other state laws that are being passed or being pushed right now.

  • Mary Ziegler:

    Well, I think South Carolina lawmakers were trying to push this as being a kind of new generation of heartbeat bill, a more kind of moderate bill, if you will.

    It's an example of what we think of as extreme changing in some states, right? I mean, heartbeat bills of any kind would have been seen as pretty out there and were seen that way in 2019. And now versions of a heartbeat bill, albeit with some of the exceptions you outlined, John, are now being framed by lawmakers as normal.

    And that's partly because the entire spectrum of abortion legislation has changed pretty radically. So, we have seen a bill proposed in Arizona that would sentence, for example, women, as well as doctors, involving — involved in abortions to make them face murder charges, and potentially even subject them to the death penalty, given that first-degree murder is death-eligible in Arizona.

    So, this — I would still qualify heartbeat bills as more sort of absolute in the grand scheme of things. But the more lawmakers embrace this strategy, the more what we would view as absolute or extreme laws changes.

    And so that's something that I think South Carolina lawmakers have very consciously done to say, this is a sort of new generation heartbeat bill that isn't as extreme. But it speaks more to the fact that what we think of as extreme in this debate is changing.

  • John Yang:

    Is the — what we think of extreme in this debate changing because the court has changed; we now have three justices nominated by Donald Trump, who have all had things to say about abortion?

  • Mary Ziegler:

    I think that's certainly what lawmakers are responding to.

    There was a sense in which it was almost futile introducing a bill like this even probably after Brett Kavanaugh joined the court, simply because that was asking the court not only to overrule Roe, but to do so pretty expeditiously and in a fairly flashy way.

    And I think now state lawmakers are betting that, among President Trump's three Supreme Court nominees, they're at least enough to get to that magical five votes that would result in the overturning of Roe.

    I think it goes beyond that, though, because I think the anti-abortion movement, much like the Republican Party, is divided. There's a sort of anti-abortion establishment, much like there's a GOP establishment, and there's an insurgent wing of the anti-abortion movement.

    A lot of those folks have been behind the heartbeat bills and some of the more extreme legislation we're seeing. And just as that wing of the GOP is ascendant, I think that wing of the anti-abortion movement is making a bid for control too. And that wing of the movement has connections in places like South Carolina. And we're seeing the consequences of that play out now.

  • John Yang:

    There is a restrictive abortion law from Mississippi that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

    That has been — a request for the Supreme Court to hear it has been pending since October. I think there were a lot of observers who thought that it would — that this new court would take it fairly quickly. Is it possible to say what this delay means, the fact that they have not taken it yet?

  • Mary Ziegler:

    It's hard to say.

    So, ordinarily, if the court had started meeting about the case in October and still hadn't made a decision, we would conclude that the court was likely not going to take the case, and that there was some justice angry about that fact.

    So, you could imagine Clarence Thomas, for example, writing an angry opinion dissenting from the court's decision not to take the case. What makes this harder to read is that part of the delays stem from the fact that the court just kept rescheduling this and not meeting about it at all.

    And we don't really know why that was. There are different theories. It could be all of the kind of election challenges President Trump was generating. It could be COVID. It could be that the court just isn't sure where to go on abortion, right?

    I mean, we have — the great mystery in this is, what kinds of conservative do we have on the Supreme Court? We have one wing, in Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who seemed quite willing to get rid of Roe quickly.

    We have Chief Justice John Roberts, who seems to want to take a more cautious approach. And we quite simply don't know where the other three justices are going to land. And the court's kind of hesitation to go one way or another on this Mississippi case is kind of deepening the mystery.

  • John Yang:

    Mary Ziegler from Florida State University, Gavin Jackson, South Carolina ETV, thank you very much.

  • Gavin Jackson:

    Thanks, John.

  • Mary Ziegler:

    Thanks for having us.

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