By Kate Scanlon | OSV News
(OSV News) — South Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill that if passed, could subject women who undergo abortions to the same punishments as those for murder in the state, including the death penalty. The proposal, which sparked criticism and controversy, stands in contrast with national pro-life leaders who have rejected criminalizing women who get an abortion.
The South Carolina Pre-Natal Equal Protection Act of 2023 says it would “afford equal protection of the laws to all preborn children from the moment of fertilization.” It would classify abortion as “willful prenatal homicide,” equivalent to “acts committed against a person who has been born.” Under the bill, an abortion would be considered homicide, subject to sentences of 30 years in prison or the death penalty.
In remarks to The State newspaper, state Rep. Rob Harris, R-Spartanburg, who sponsored the measure, said, “We have to ask ourselves as a culture, whether we believe life begins at conception or not. The ramifications of that are the same for anybody else who would take another life.”
Asked about the ensuing media attention on the bill over the potential for women who undergo abortions to face the death penalty, Harris said, “The laws are already on the books about murder, and all that stuff. I’m not arguing to change any of those laws. The bill is forcing our culture to decide, is this really life inside?”
The legislation which previously had 21 co-sponsors, shed some of those lawmakers as the bill drew attention, with six of those co-sponsors withdrawing their support as of March 15, according to the South Carolina General Assembly’s website.
The bill was criticized by groups and politicians who support keeping abortion legal. They argued that pro-life proponents seek to punish women. A Twitter account for the state House Democrats wrote March 13, “First it was a six-week ban. Then it was a total ban. Now it’s a ban punishable by death. The attack on women’s rights continues in South Carolina.”
Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder and president of New Wave Feminists, told OSV News “the death penalty is not pro-life.” “Hating women is not a pro-life stance,” De La Rosa said.
De La Rosa called such measures “political theater” that should be swiftly condemned by the pro-life movement, which she said should focus on “humanizing the unborn child” amid “a massive cultural shift” post-Roe.
“The only legislation I want to see are policies that are actually creating a culture where a pregnant person can choose life,” she said.
Kristi Hamrick, vice president of media and policy for Students for Life Action, told OSV News that the group and its sister organization, Students for Life of America, “have been extremely clear that we oppose penalties for mothers, who are a second victim of a predatory industry.”
Hamrick added that “the pro-life community is made up of many women who have an abortion story, witnesses to the truth that abortion is sold with a lie — that it solves problems and that women are incapable of solving their own problems without it. Instead, a new set of horrors is the result, along with a lost child.”
“The focus of our legal efforts need to be on the businesses set up to prey on women, making billions from the chaos,” she said.
Asked by OSV News about Rep. Harris’ anti-abortion legislation, Holly Gatling, executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life, praised a different piece of pro-life legislation in the state, the Human Life Protection Act, which was passed by the state’s House on Feb. 15 in a 83-31 vote. That legislation would ban most elective abortions in the state, and would be enforced through revoking the medical licenses of doctors who perform them.
“This is the will of the voters of South Carolina,” Gatling said of the Human Life Protection Act, adding that bill is supported by “seven large statewide pro-life and pro-family organizations who represent the authentic, rational, majority of pro-life grassroots voters of South Carolina.”
Gatling told OSV News South Carolina Citizens for Life is on record with 70 other right-to-life organizations “as opposing legislation that criminalizes women who have abortions.”
In a May 12, 2022, letter to state lawmakers in advance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, national and state pro-life leaders wrote they oppose criminalizing women in any new abortion restrictions lawmakers might consider.
“Women are victims of abortion and require our compassion and support as well as ready access to counseling and social services in the days, weeks, months, and years following an abortion,” the letter stated. “As national and state pro-life organizations, representing tens of millions of pro-life men, women, and children across the country, let us be clear: We state unequivocally that we do not support any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to includ(ing) such penalties in legislation.”
Signatories on the letter include Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life and its lobbying arm; Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, then-chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and De La Rosa. Gatling, as well Lisa Van Riper, South Carolina Citizens for Life president, also are among the signatories on that letter.