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Sister Senators: SC women must defend their freedom and right to choose abortion

Post and Courier - May 28, 2023

By Katrina Shealy, Margie Bright Matthews, Mia McLeod, Sandy Senn and Penry Gustafson

S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy posted this photo to her Twitter account earlier this month after the five women in the Senate started calling themselves the sister senators.

The Athenian comedy “Lysistrata” recounts how women ended the Peloponnesian War by denying men sex until they agreed to negotiate peace. Shockingly, almost 2,500 years later, American women must use our own collective power to avoid becoming casualties in a culture war that has roiled the nation, ignored women’s views and threatened our very freedom as equal citizens.

On Thursday, Gov. Henry McMaster signed S.474, which bans abortion before most women know they are pregnant. As the only five women in the S.C. Senate, we opposed this extreme law, but 27 men in the Senate passed it over our objections.

S.474 bans abortion once a tone from embryonic electrical activity (falsely dubbed a “heartbeat”) is detected, at approximately six weeks of pregnancy. At six weeks, the pea-size embryo has no heart, and most women do not realize they are pregnant. Assuming the woman has a regular, monthly period (many do not) and immediately acts once she is “late,” she would have 14 days to decide whether to have and obtain an abortion.

Under the best circumstances, women wait 36 to 42 days for an OB-GYN appointment to confirm pregnancy. Even so, women will have to have two physician appointments before obtaining an abortion. This would prove especially difficult for minors with little or no experience with regular menstrual cycles, who also must have either parental consent or court approval. Anyone with elementary knowledge of women’s health will understand this: S.474 is a total ban.

So-called “exceptions” offer cold comfort. Victims of rape and incest must be reported by their doctors to the sheriff. We know what the consequences of this law will be. Children as young as 10 will become mothers. Women and girls will be forced to carry their rapist’s babies. Doctors who help women will be prosecuted. S.474 will not end abortion; it will only end safe, legal abortion.

On four prior occasions we prevented similar bans from becoming law. In January, the state Supreme Court struck down a six-week ban for violating the state constitution’s privacy clause.

Thirty years earlier, the court had cited the privacy right without controversy to protect inmates’ ability to control their own medical decisions. The court applied that same reasoning to strike down a ban that invaded women’s medical privacy.

S.474 is nearly identical to the law the court just struck down, and the implications of passing it despite the January decision are unavoidable. First, medical autonomy for convicted criminals was fine, but medical autonomy for women, this Legislature cannot abide. Second, while we are hopeful all five justices (including those who dissented in January) will faithfully apply precedent and strike down this new law, it is telling that the only thing that changed significantly since the Supreme Court decision is the replacement of its author — the court’s sole female justice — with a new male justice elected by the Legislature over two female rivals. The transparent effort to intimidate the court and dictate a different outcome undermines the rule of law.

Notably, we five are not in complete agreement on this issue. Some of us voted for what we believe are additional, reasonable restrictions on abortion. Some of us believe Roe v. Wade struck the right balance by protecting abortion until viability. However, none of us supports taking these difficult medical decisions from women and their doctors. We are all mothers, women of faith and pro-life. But this law is about control over women and our bodies. Abortion is a difficult issue, but at its core, it asks a simple question: Who do we trust to make these profound personal choices — women or the government?

Polling consistently indicates 75% or more of South Carolinians trust women, not government, to choose. Legislative leaders know their law is unpopular, which is why they took it up during a special session, limited amendments and debate and rammed it through. Some men who voted for this law secretly oppose it but were too afraid of becoming a political casualty in the culture war. Indeed, some of us have been threatened with political retaliation for our stand. We do not view our oaths and public service so cynically that we can trade our constituents’ bodily autonomy for our own political ambition.

We believe the women of this state will show up at the ballot box. This is our Lysistrata moment. Until our rights as full citizens are protected, we must vote single-issue on abortion.

This means voting in party primaries that most voters skip; it may require us to cross party lines in primary and general elections to support pro-woman candidates. We must also use our influence as mothers, sisters and partners to grow the number of like-minded male allies. We did not prevail in stopping S.474, but we can withhold our favor from those who treat women as second-class citizens and make our message clear: We will see you in court, and we will see you at the polls.

Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, Mia McLeod, I-Richland, Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, and Penry Gustafson, R-Kershaw, are the only women serving in the S.C. Senate. They have been dubbed the “Sister Senators.”

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