Politics & Government

SC conservatives hope to scale back abortion after Trump court pick

Conservative elected officials and activists in South Carolina have been fighting to roll back abortion for decades, with mixed success. Now, with President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, those pro-life advocates see an opening to score more wins.

"Liberals, both Democrats and Republicans, for years have used the Supreme Court as a convenient excuse to avoid fighting for the unborn,” Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, said Tuesday. "That excuse expired last night.”

Kavanaugh, who now is on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, doesn’t have as clear a record opposing abortion rights as some of the other contenders on Trump’s short list to succeed retiring Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy.

In the past, Kavanaugh has said he respects legal precedent, and Roe v. Wade – the landmark 1973 ruling guaranteeing a constitutional right to an abortion -- widely is considered precedent.

But Kavanaugh recently was one of three judges on an appeals court panel asked to consider whether an undocumented immigrant minor could leave federal detention to have an abortion. Ultimately, the panel decided she could, but Kavanaugh, in his dissent, said the court was wrong to conclude the minor had the right to "an immediate abortion on demand."

Still, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the conservative Susan B. Anthony List, jumped on a press conference call minutes after Trump's announcement Monday night to declare the Kavanaugh nomination "the moment the pro-life movement has been looking forward to for decades."

While pro-life activists in South Carolina are divided over whether another conservative voice on the country's highest court will be enough to curb abortion, they agree Kavanaugh’s nomination – and confirmation — certainly could bolster future legislative efforts.

"There's a subset of the pro-life population that has been stymied by the argument that now is not the time (to file pro-life legislation) because of the makeup of the Supreme Court," said Matthew Clark, head of pro-life group Personhood South Carolina.

"That argument is obviously weaker now than it was in the past,” Clark continued. “We don't know what this court would do. I can't say it would overturn Roe v. Wade. But we can all agree it's a lot more likely that they would now than before."

This year, S.C. lawmakers debated several proposals to curtail abortion in the state or outright ban it.

For instance, lawmakers debated a bill that would have required a doctor to euthanize a fetus before a woman goes through a procedure called dilation and evacuation, the most common and safest method of terminating a pregnancy in the second trimester.

Another proposal sought to ban all abortions, extending legal rights to fertilized eggs at the moment of conception.

Both measures failed to pass.

Anti-abortion advocates cheered last week, though, when Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed some $16 million for health care services, a move aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood, which gets a tiny sliver of that money for non-abortion services.

One S.C. lawmaker — the State House's most outspoken pro-life legislator — thinks Kavanaugh’s ascent could create a perfect storm for pro-life efforts in the state.

"People are not going to be able to skate by in the middle of the road,” said state Sen. Richard Cash, R-Anderson, noting all legislators — in the House and Senate — will be up for re-election in 2020. “Everyone in the pro-life community is going to be paying close attention to how their legislators vote on this."

But not every S.C. lawmaker feels emboldened by Trump's pick.

"I never place my hope with one individual," said state Rep. Lin Bennett, R-Charleston, who filed the fetus euthanasia bill.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, also downplayed the extent to which Kavanaugh’s nomination would rally the state’s pro-life voters. “The base is motivated already.”

Scott, like most of his fellow pro-life Republican senators, has to tread carefully when speaking about abortion in connection to Kavanaugh's upcoming confirmation. Democrats are sounding the alarm bells that Kavanaugh’s appointment would cement an anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court that could overturn Roe v. Wade.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, has said repeatedly he only would support a nominee who respects “precedent.”

However, Graham also hinted recently in a “Meet the Press” interview that a conservative court could one day rule on whether abortions should be illegal after 20 weeks, the point at which some medical experts think a fetus can begin to feel pain. That prohibition already has been enacted in 21 states, including South Carolina. Graham has been trying, without success, to pass a 20-week abortion ban through Congress since 2013.

On Tuesday, Graham said Kavanaugh’s pick “will energize conservatism” as a whole in South Carolina, “of which the pro-life movement is a part.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain; Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter