Anti-abortion protester Steven Lefemine holds up a graphic sign as Mark Baumgartner, founder of the anti-abortion group, A Moment of Hope, tries to talk with patients arriving for abortion appointments at Planned Parenthood on May 27, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. The state’s abortion cutoff is at 20 weeks, but a proposed bill would define life as starting at conception. David Goldman/Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Women who get an abortion in South Carolina would be eligible for the death penalty if a proposal at the State House becomes law.

A bill called the South Carolina Pre-Natal Equal Protection Act would “afford equal protection of the laws to all preborn children from the moment of fertilization,” and reclassify any act that ends a pregnancy as “wilful prenatal homicide.”

Under the bill, an abortion could be punished like any murder, leading to sentences of 30 years in prison up to the death penalty.

The bill explicitly exempts from prosecution a woman who receives an abortion if “she was compelled to do so by the threat of imminent death or great bodily injury.”

The proposal has received wide attention at a time when Republican-led states are debating how far to go in regulating or banning abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the procedure is no longer subject to federal legal protections.

State Rep. Rob Harris, a Spartanburg Republican who sponsored the measure, said the bill stems from the Legislature’s need to clarify when life begins.


”We have a problem with abortion, we don’t respect all life,” Harris said. “So, what my bill uniquely does is that it protects all life by defining life at conception. 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.”

Harris added that the bill’s intent was not to subject a mother who undergoes an abortion to the death penalty, but to save babies.

”The state has become an abortion destination, so what are we doing to stop abortion?”

When asked about whether the media’s focus on aborting mothers potentially receiving the death penalty weakens his bill or the chances of the bill passing, 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 bill, introduced in December, has garnered 16 co-sponsors in the House. It currently awaits action by the House Judiciary Committee.

Ann Warner, the CEO of the Women’s Rights Empowerment Network, says a woman having the abortion or the physician performing the procedure could be charged. She said the bill is policing reproductive health care, which she called “truly scary.”


“We’re extremely alarmed and worried about the increasing, extreme legislation that is not only being introduced, but where multiple co-sponsors are signing on, that would criminalize women for having abortions or for having any kind of pregnancy outcome,” Warner said. “It would force … the state to intrude into the most personal private decisions that people have to make and would result in sending women to jail.”

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who blasted the proposal on the U.S. House floor last week, said that seeing the debate on abortion “go to the dark places, the dark edges, where it has gone on both sides of the aisle, has been deeply disturbing to me as a woman, as a female legislator, as a mom, and as a victim of rape.” Meg Kinnard/Associated Press

“I think anytime that you are going to punish someone for seeking health care, regardless of the reason, it goes way beyond what the Legislature should be doing, and it punishes women far greater than others who might commit similar or other offenses that might be deemed murder,” said Vicki Ringer, public affairs director at Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. “It will lead to unintended consequences.

The proposal has also drawn the ire of Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who blasted the proposal on the U.S. House floor last week.

“To see this debate go to the dark places, the dark edges, where it has gone on both sides of the aisle, has been deeply disturbing to me as a woman, as a female legislator, as a mom, and as a victim of rape,” Mace said, according to The Hill.

The bill comes as state lawmakers consider how to respond to two landmark court rulings in the past year: a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer overturning the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade case that established federal protections for women seeking access to abortion, and a South Carolina Supreme Court decision in January that ruled the state constitution’s right to privacy protects that same right for women in the Palmetto State.

The latter decision struck down a “fetal heartbeat” law that would have banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy – a law that had been blocked from going into effect by federal courts before the Roe protections were removed.


Currently, abortion is legally available in South Carolina up until about 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The state Supreme Court’s ruling hasn’t stopped Republican lawmakers from attempting to place new restrictions on the procedure. Last month, the South Carolina House passed a near-total abortion ban despite the new precedent. The Senate passed a new six-week bill specifically designed to respond to the state Supreme Court’s decision.

Lawmakers also replaced Justice Kaye Hearn, who authored the abortion decision and had hit the mandatory retirement age for state judges, with appellate judge Gary Hill, creating the state’s first all-male Supreme Court in 35 years.

Two weeks ago, Greenville police arrested a woman who allegedly consumed abortion pills in order to end a 25-week pregnancy in 2021. Self-medicated abortions are banned as a misdemeanor in South Carolina. The woman reportedly sought medical help at a local hospital for labor pains after taking the pills.

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