COLUMBIA, S.C. — A state Senate subcommittee heard testimony Thursday on one of the most controversial bills at the South Carolina Statehouse. The Personhood Act says life begins at conception and would outlaw all abortions, with no exceptions for rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant introduced the bill while he was still a state senator and testified briefly in favor of it. “This legislation directly underscores and recognizes those unalienable rights endowed by the Creator: the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to the pursuit of happiness for the baby girl and the baby boy that have yet to be born,” he told the subcommittee.
He said if personhood starts at fertilization, then that unborn child cannot be deprived of life nor denied the equal protection of the laws.
But Lynn Teague, with the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, argued that the bill is unconstitutional.
“The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that public policy in a pluralistic society must affirm the constitutional right of privacy of the individual to make reproductive choices. This bill is an attack on that constitutional right. Very importantly, this bill is also inconsistent with our constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. The personhood concept as defined in this bill depends upon the idea that a fertilized egg, zygote, or embryo can be considered a person. This is inconsistent with normal usage of the English language and is not supported by a scientific understanding,” she said.
Registered Nurse Laura Fultz argued the scientific question, quoting medical textbooks to senators. “From an embryology textbook written for medical students, ‘A zygote, fertilized egg, is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization,’” she said.
But Dr. Michael Slowey, a reproductive endocrinologist and co-founder of Coastal Fertility Specialists in Mt. Pleasant, told senators, “Stating that human life begins at fertilization is really not consistent with scientific fact. Both sperm and egg are alive prior to fertilization. Although there is DNA added, no real new life is created. Secondly, declaring that personhood occurs at fertilization implies individuality, which is actually a fallacy. While very few of our pre-implantation embryos, either in the person or in the laboratory, actually have the potential to deliver, some actually have the potential to become multiple individuals, as witnessed by identical twinning.” In other words, how can an embryo be legally considered a person when, in fact, it’s possible that embryo could divide into more than one person?
Senators also heard dramatic testimony from Katie Sacra, a mother who found out that her child would be born with a rare and eventually fatal condition. That child has severe handicaps. Despite that, she and her husband decided to try to have other children, since there was only a 25 percent chance of those babies having the same condition. But she found out during those pregnancies that those babies did have the condition.
“Exactly ten years ago today, I was scheduling an abortion, a decision I never thought I would make, a decision I have made more than once because of this horrible disorder, an incredibly personal decision I am so grateful to have been able to make,” she told senators. “I had to travel to have my abortion, but at least it was still in the same state and I was able to go home and sleep in my bed that night. Many women, they don’t. Bills like this force them to travel to other states with funds they often do not have.”
After the hearing, Vicki Ringer, Director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood of South Carolina, said, “It bans many forms of birth control. It would ban in-vitro fertilization, and it would ban abortion without exception, so rape, incest, if a woman’s life is in danger, if the fetus is going to die, there’s no exceptions for any of that. Women will have to suffer.”
Dr. Matthew Clark, chairman of Personhood SC, says, “Can we really even talk about exceptions to someone having rights? We grieve that that mom went through that, but is that the baby’s fault? We have to say, philosophically, if we’re going to be consistent, no, it’s not.”
44 people on both sides of the issue signed up to testify, packing the state Senate hearing room. Because of time constraints, only 10 were able to speak during the one-and-a-half- hour hearing. The subcommittee plans to hold another hearing and did not take a vote.
That also means the bill is unlikely to pass this year. The crossover deadline is April 6th, when a bill has to have passed in either the House or Senate to have a realistic chance of becoming law this year. Since this bill couldn’t come out of subcommittee until next week at the earliest, and would then still require passage in a full committee and then the full Senate, it’s unlikely to pass this year. A bill can come up for debate and a vote after the crossover deadline, but it requires a two-thirds vote by lawmakers to bring it up.