S.C. subcommittee votes to not pay for abortions in rape, incest

S.C. taxpayers and state employees would not pay for abortions in cases of rape or incest, according to a budget rule unanimously approved Tuesday by a state Senate subcommittee.

The rule, sponsored by state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, would allow the state’s health insurance plan – financed by taxpayers and state workers – to pay for an abortion only if the life of the mother is in danger.

Some Republican lawmakers have tried, and failed, to pass the rule for at least two years. It is part of the passionate, broader abortion debate.

However, its revival as part of the Senate’s budget debate could slow passage of a state spending plan and threaten the prospects of other key proposals that legislators had hoped to approve before their session ends in June.

The rule – a temporary, one-year proviso – would apply to the 417,000 people covered by the state’s health insurance plan.

However, over the last six years, the abortion limitation would have prevented no abortions. During that period, the state insurance plan paid for six abortions – all to save the life of the mother.

The dispute focuses on the definition of “victim.” Is it the rape or incest victim? Or the fetus that results from a sexual assault?

Bryant and his allies say the unborn child is a victim who has rights that must be protected. “We’re focusing on the rights and the liberty of an unborn child, and I can’t understand why the life of a child that’s a victim ought to be terminated,” he said.

Critics say barring abortions in cases of rape or incest ignores the rights of the women who already have been the victims of crime.

“They are saying, ‘We don’t care about victims of crime,’ ” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. “It really penalizes victims for a second time.”

The three current exemptions that allow the state health plan to pay for abortions – in cases of rape or incest, or when life of the mother is threatened – mirror 30-year-old federal policy, commonly referred to as the Hyde Amendment, named for former U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.

Since 2006, state taxpayers and workers have paid for six abortions. All were performed to save the life of the mother, according to the State Budget and Control Board.

The state health plan also covered 41 fetal death abortions – cases where the fetus already had died. But those cases are not technically considered abortions under S.C. law and would not be affected by the proposed change, according to Lindsey Kremlick, spokeswoman for the State Budget and Control Board.

State Sens. David Thomas and Mike Fair, both Greenville Republicans, joined Bryant in voting for the abortion-restricting rule. Earlier this year, Bryant, Thomas and Fair approved a bill that also would have eliminated state-funded abortions in cases of rape or incest. But that bill did not advance out of committee.

The next step for the proviso passed Tuesday is the full Senate Finance Committee. Hutto said he expects Democrats will try to remove the proviso there.

Should the proposal emerge from that committee, it faces an uphill battle in the all-male Senate, where any one member effectively can block a bill by talking it to death.

Statewide, the number of abortions has been decreasing, to about 6,500 in 2010 from nearly 7,200 in 2008, the most recent numbers available, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.