South Carolina Dems Filibuster Drastic Abortion Bill

Spotlight South Carolina aims to highlight local progressive politicians, candidates, activists and events with an emphasis on how people can get involved in changing the world around them.

Most people in South Carolina were asleep on a Wednesday night early in May, but the SC Senate was deep in the weeds of a filibuster against a bill to ban abortions in the state.

On Wednesday, May 2, 2018, an abortion bill was read in the middle of the night. It had been sent from the House to the Senate with the purpose of outlawing dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortions, which occur in the later stages of pregnancy. Once in the Senate, it was amended to include all abortions and also target in vitro fertilization clinics and many forms of birth control — basically anything other than barrier methods. On Thursday night, the bill was to be voted on in its final form, and the South Carolina Senate Democrats came to the rescue.

South Carolina Capitol where an Abortion Bill was filibustered in the Senate.

South Carolina Capitol Building (Photo by Runner1928 [CC BY-SA 3.0])

Through a team effort, the party’s members filibustered the bill until it went back into committee. For hours, Senator Marlon Kimpson of Charleston, Senator Margie Matthews of Colleton, and Senator Brad Hutto of Orangeburg led the fight, bolstered by Senator Mike Fanning, Senator Mia McLeod, Senator John Scott, Senator Gerald Malloy and a host of others. Together, they stood and opposed this measure to roll back women’s reproductive rights in South Carolina, where such rights are already behind much of the country.

Photo of State Senator Brad Hutto

Brad Hutto, South Carolina State Senator

The surprise move was when the original bill was amended to include all abortion (with the “Three Exceptions”: rape, incest, and life of the mother) and many forms of birth control — not by a fanatical right-wing Republican, but by pro-choice Democrat Brad Hutto. In a twist that he kept “close-to-the-chest,” as it looked like the Republicans would have enough votes to outlaw this specific abortion procedure, he baited a trap by offering the Republicans everything they wanted. Senator Matthews admitted that she was taken aback when the amendment was first introduced; however, she understood what he was doing as it played out. Senator Kimpson called the move “masterful.”

[tweet_dis2]By expanding the conversation from D&E to abortion in general, GOP members of the Senate could not help but seize on the chance to challenge Roe v. Wade.[/tweet_dis2] Once it was made clear this would also include birth control, many moderate pro-life voices withdrew support, as most are not extreme enough to deny birth control access with a long-shot assault on a SCOTUS case that has been upheld for 45 years through challenge after challenge. Senator Richard Cash is one of few who is, and he opposed the bill in its final form, largely because it allowed the Three Exemptions. His attempt to tack on a “fetal personhood” amendment failed. Though the bill retained most of its supporters, Hutto’s gambit paid off, as several votes were peeled away, effectively sending the bill back to committee.

D&E: What We Think, and What It Means

Please take note, in its most sterile form, abortion is not pleasant, and some of the descriptions below may be disturbing.

The thrust of the original bill was the controversial “dilation and evacuation” procedure. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, D&E (identified as D&X in the 2007 article) is an incredibly rare procedure offered by only 31 providers in 2000 and accounting for “0.17% of all abortions in the United States in that year.” In South Carolina, the procedure was used just 22 times in 2016, compared to 5,714 abortions total (0.0039%).

The infrequency with which the procedure is performed is perhaps one of the reasons the bill carried as much support as it did. Another reason may be that when it is discussed, it is always in the context of how terrible the procedure of “dismemberment abortion” is.

The terms surrounding this procedure are hard to nail down, because of the propaganda being disseminated. For instance, the term “partial birth abortion” coined by Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee was taken without question to the point where a 2003 bill banned it, defining PBA as:

An abortion in which the person performing the abortion, deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus; and performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the partially delivered living fetus

The bill described this procedure as “a disfavored procedure that is not only unnecessary to preserve the health of the mother, but in fact poses serious risks to the long-term health of women and, in some circumstances, their lives.” However, late-term extraction is not done with the fetus alive, and PBA is only used as a political term and not by medical or legal practitioners. Different methods of D&E depend on the development stage of the fetus. Standard D&E is used at 13-24 weeks after the skeleton has calcified too much to use suction alone. Intact Dilation and Extraction (IDX) can only be performed after 16 weeks and involves fully extracting the fetus from the dilated cervix.

While the senators I spoke to defined the bill’s target as D&E, the procedure they described was much closer to IDX. The State newspaper’s website includes testimony from a doctor whose description reads like a giddy, child sadist pulling apart a trapped fly. However, in IDX it is crucial for the fetus to be brought out as whole as possible. If the parts are not all withdrawn as efficiently as possible, the doctor has to clean out the uterus thoroughly, lest sepsis threaten the woman’s life. Therefore, the treatment is extremely complicated, requiring incredibly skilled doctors.

Endearment of Terms

The complexity of navigating the political, legal, and medical concepts allows for a heaping helping of propaganda to color the conversation. Senator Grooms gave his impassioned speech against “dismemberment abortion”; and The State newspaper repeatedly referred to the procedure in that fashion, using quotation marks to indicate the term is not official, but never specifying the actual name of the procedure. By not giving the actual name, it cements the propaganda for the reader, who would describe the bill as banning “dismemberment” of a fetus, which absolutely should make someone flinch when they first hear about it. However, the procedure is not as even doctors would have you believe.

As I interviewed senators over the phone, I was struck by the fact that, although they had been poring over the same material, only one identified the extraction of an intact fetus as necessary to the procedure they were debating. In some cases, when the fetus hasn’t formed enough to hold together, a piecemeal removal is necessary; and even when the fetus has formed enough for an IDX, the chance of parts coming off in the extraction exists. This is why the availability of exceptionally skilled physicians is crucial to this procedure. Should a part be missed, the woman’s life is imperiled, as previously noted.

The propaganda surrounding this issue has been so pervasive and shocking as to conjure up images of mad scientists using any excuse to carve up babies. In most cases, the fetus is euthanized and then extracted. IDX is not performed until at least the second trimester, and then only for drastic reasons. However, the details that are trotted out portray a picture of unnecessary cruelty, implying doctors performing the procedure are violating the Hippocratic Oath. Senator Grooms asserted, “We treat animals in slaughterhouses better than unborn children” (while that is not remotely true, if it were, we might want to think about increasing access to natal healthcare rather than forcing unwanted births).

But the fact is these procedures are rare because they take place so late in term. According to the CDC, 90% of abortions occur before the 13 week mark. If a pregnancy has made it to the point that it requires these procedures, it is because the woman has had trouble gaining access to an abortion for geographic or financial reasons, has delayed abortion for fear of reprisal from family or community, or wasn’t previously aware she was pregnant (Denied Pregnancy in the 20th week, a common cut-off in abortion laws, occurs in one out of 400 or 500 pregnancies).

What is most likely in these procedures is that an anomaly has been recently detected — one so dramatic that it would either threaten the life of the mother (many abortion laws do not make exceptions for the health of the mother) or would render the baby severely disabled or more likely dead soon after birth. In the latter cases, according to Senator Hutto, a family would be forced to drag out an unviable pregnancy for an extra three months, delaying mourning, acceptance, and any attempt they might make at trying again for a family. Rather than wake up from anesthetic with the tragedy over, a mother would have to spend a quarter of a year waiting to experience the death of a child face-to-face. As Senator Matthews stated, this is a “pro-birth agenda,” not pro-life.

Unforseen Consequences of Propaganda

There’s a popular game to illustrate how propaganda works. Describing the dangers of a common chemical, dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), the advocate calls upon an audience to ban this chemical that kills people all over the world and is found in just about everything. It is only after the audience has agreed that something must be done that it is revealed they have banned water.

By focusing on the details of the procedure and not on the circumstances in which they occur, the GOP plays a DHMO game, describing how disgusting the procedure is rather than its utility. Any surgery is gross, but that is not a reason to ban it. About a year ago, my wife gave birth to our son by cesarean delivery (C-section). As I went around to hold him for the first time, I could see the doctors fiddling with parts of her that lay outside of a chasm I tried desperately not to focus on. The image still haunts me, and sometimes I find myself taken aback by how vulnerable she was, and how close I was to losing her, even in a routine procedure.

Imagine that someone were to go around describing how OB-GYNs are gutting women instead of allowing them to give birth the way God intended. Since C-sections are more common than IDX, it would be harder for the propaganda to take root, but it’s the same concept. The details of a C-section, without the context surrounding its use as a viable and often necessary procedure, would take people aback. Similarly, if doctors did not do everything they could to remove pieces of the fetus lingering in a womb, the risk of infection and death would be enormous, and the pain and suffering that women and their families would go through would be unimaginable.

One of the concerns for opponents of the original South Carolina bill, let alone its amended form, was the criminalization of the procedure. According to testimony heard by the Senate, the threat of felony prosecution in the back of the mind of a doctor who is operating on a woman could endanger the success of the procedure. In a case so desperate as a late-term abortion, it is imperative that ready access to exceptional doctors is preserved. The situations under which these procedures are performed are so dire, it is unthinkable that women and their families would not find a way around legal barriers. However, as with any medical procedure, the more you have to settle for less-than-adequate treatment, the more perilous it becomes.

One of the disturbing things about this debate is the idea that the infrequency of IDX made it a ripe target for a ban. Since a mere 22 women had this procedure in South Carolina in 2016, banning it would have presented no real political danger. But once the bill was expanded to include what would be morally consistent with opposition to abortion, including birth control, the legislation lost enough support that it could no longer pass.

Taking away an emergency procedure from 22 women a year would have had little effect on the constituency, but taking away abortion access for over 5,000 women — and birth control from somewhere in the 90th percentile of sexually-active women and their partners in the state — suddenly saddled legislators with a political decision that would have affected a majority of their voters.

Opponents of abortion have labored hard to characterize women who get abortions as promiscuous and irresponsible. As long as abortions are relatively rare, or not something of which we speak often, it is easy to think of them as what happens when someone of poor character makes a life mistake. As the focus narrows to a more rare procedure, it becomes easier to see this as a remote idea — one that doesn’t affect anyone in the Real World.

Banning IDX/D&E methods of abortion would put a small but incredibly vulnerable population in jeopardy. It would almost be signing a death warrant to any woman who dared have her life threatened by her pregnancy, or who had the audacity to avoid watching her baby die in her arms after months of pregnancy.

The fact that these procedures take place in the late stages of pregnancy means that most (if not all) of these women wanted these babies. Even if we accept the propaganda that abortion is used simply because the silly woman forgot to take her pill or insist that her lover wear protection, this punishes women who “did everything right” but were hit with tragedy at the end. Because this procedure is commonly misunderstood, many opponents will miss this conclusion, but it’s the reality.

Another factor that moved this bill forward, which does no credit to the South Carolina legislature, was that it came at the end of a shortened session that failed to address many economic issues in the state. Chief among these was the controversial VC Summer nuclear power plant. On top of the vast number of other issues that aren’t being effectively addressed in the state — poor educational resources, giant problems in foster care, Medicare/Medicaid funding, and autism resources — the failed nuclear plant was an elephant in the room no one wanted to address.

For some of the more opportunistic members, a quixotic charge against abortion was a chance to signal a hard stance on an issue important to their constituents. Rather than face the grave situation the state has been left in following decades of right-wing austerity, the GOP focused on hot-button issues, tilting at the Roe v. Wade windmill to virtue-signal to their constituents without formulating actual policies to help them.

While a majority of the GOP senators aren’t motivated by pure cynicism, enough are to let a “Trump wave” steer the course of the legislature. The GOP majority sets the schedule, and they determine what gets discussed. There is no one they can point to as disrupting the schedule; but throw in an issue for which Democrats are sure to muster their strongest resistance, and the finger points — as though they could have fixed the myriad problems in the state in the half-week left in the session if only the filibuster had ended.

When the National Party Fails, the States Lead

I am one of the first to criticize the failures of the Democrats on a national level. The party apparatus has ignored numerous states, particularly southern ones and the most vulnerable, believing that it’s better to focus on wealthy, blue states. The cynical expectation that minority voters will carry the party, especially in the face of Interstate Crosscheck and other suppression methods, is a testament to the disinclination of the party to do the actual work of governance, instead focusing on building a “blue wall” before they try to actually fix anything. The failures of Hillary Clinton and Jon Ossoff have not taught the national party apparatchiks the lessons they will need to build a sustainable party that excites voters for the future. Instead, it is concentrating on short-term returns, the corporate philosophy applied to politics.

Senator Hutto explained to me the dangers of focusing on radical opposition. People like Senator Cash, who want to ban all abortion even at the expense of women’s lives, are a minority. Their voices drive the conversation rightward to be sure, but the ones who slip things through the cracks are the “moderates,” who would be considered radical in any objective discourse. For instance, John Kasich signed a bill to ban abortions in Ohio after 20 weeks, but it was seen as “moderate” and “reasonable” since it was a compromise from a “fetal heartbeat” bill, which would have banned abortions as early as six weeks. Since he described this as the “best, most legally sound and sustainable approach to protecting the sanctity of human life,” it allowed Kasich to present himself as middle-of-the-road. But since the bill did not recognize the Three Exceptions, it was seen by pro-choice activists as “extreme.” When people on the ostensible left call Kasich a “moderate,” they concede the field to right-wing opponents, losing the ideological battle from the outset.

Local Democratic parties have made incredible efforts to push progressive values in supposedly deeply red states. From Kansas to here in South Carolina, when the local party fights, it means more than when the national party throws money at “anointed” candidates. Virginia even elected Lee Carter, an avowed member of Democratic Socialists of America. Teachers are striking in deep-red states. In states that are poor, working-class, “red,” whatever you call them, there is a deep need for the policies that the national party claims to uphold — but never delivers in crunch time.

If the national party had half the chutzpah of Senator Hutto baiting the GOP, and an inkling of the grit of Senators Kimpson and Matthews and the rest of the party sticking it out overnight and getting the important fight fought, we would be living in a vastly different political landscape. [tweet_dis2]The national party has got to take notice. This is how you fight — by fighting.[/tweet_dis2] And make no mistake, this is a fight.

National Democrats, live up to your name. The people are speaking, and we demand a voice. Our state parties are doing the heavy lifting, and your members wallowing in corporate funding and revolving-door connections are taking credit. What you do out of power proves what you will do in power. There is a wave of unrest in this country, and with strong effort, that wave could be blue. Show the people you stand with them, and the people will stand with you.

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Matt lives in Columbia, SC with his wife and two kids. He’s a volunteer activist, and would very much like to receive regular checks for the work he has been doing (call me, Mr. Soros. Or Bloomberg. Or whomever).

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