South Carolina has become the latest state to restrict women's access to abortion, with legislators passing a bill that bans women from obtaining an abortion at 20 weeks or later, even if she has been raped or is a victim of incest.
The South Carolina Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act was approved by House lawmakers late Tuesday in a 79-29 vote. The only exceptions to the 20-week ban are if a doctor determines the mother's life is at risk or the fetus cannot sustain life outside the womb.
Doctors who violate the law could face up to $10,000 in fines and three years in jail.
The bill, which Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to sign into law, represents yet another state-level win for abortion opponents. They argued for the 20-week limit on the basis that a fetus can feel pain by that time—a claim that is not supported by a preponderance of scientific evidence.
Sixteen other states, including Alabama and Wisconsin, have passed legislation similar to South Carolina's. Most have applied the limit at 20 weeks post-fertilization (22 weeks after the woman's last menstrual period), but two states – Arizona and Mississippi – have banned abortions after 18 weeks.
State Rep. Wendy Nanney, the South Carolina bill's Republican sponsor, said she was "thrilled" that the bill had passed, calling it "a great step forward" for the state.
"I hope it will save lives and, as medical science moves along and we can see more and more into the womb, I hope that we can continue to push these weeks back," said Nanney, who believes life begins at conception.
"Ultimately, I would love to get rid of abortion completely," she said.
Abortion restrictions have been enacted by states ever since the Supreme Court issued its landmark 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade to legalize abortion.
Yet momentum has reached an unprecedented level in the last six years, as conservative legislators, predominantly in the Southeast and the Midwest, have drawn up an unprecedented number of laws that limit women's abortion access – from tightening clinic regulations, introducing mandatory waiting periods, and placing limits on minors' access to abortion.
Since 2011, states have enacted 320 abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research and policy group that monitors reproductive health laws.
The cumulative effect of all these laws, critics say, is to make it harder for women to obtain abortions.
"If you look at the Southeast, the entire landscape on abortion has shifted," said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate at Guttmacher. "We've seen so many restrictions in so many states that providers are struggling to keep their doors open and women are struggling to access services.
"I see these restrictions as a mountain that women have to climb," Nash said. "This mountain keeps getting bigger and the burden keeps growing."
In Texas, where legislators in 2013 passed a law that required doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where they practice, about half of the state's abortion clinics have closed. The U.S. Supreme Court is now hearing arguments about whether that state's law places an undue burden on the constitutional right to an abortion.
Time restrictions similar to South Carolina's are already in effect in 12 states, but South Dakota's new law does not go into effect until July and enforcement has been blocked in Arizona, Georgia, and Idaho by court challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether such limits are constitutional.
In South Carolina, opponents of the newly passed bill argue that it undermines women's autonomy.
"The reality is that abortion later in pregnancy is extremely rare and often takes place in complex and difficult situations where a woman and her doctor need every medical option available," said Alyssa Miller, South Carolina director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, in a statement.
"Abortion is a deeply personal, often complex decision that is best left to a woman and her doctor—not politicians."