Death Penalty For Abortions Is On The Table In South Carolina

A new bill from "pro-life" Republicans could make abortion a crime punishable by death.

A South Carolina lawmaker is defending a bill he authored that could result in the death penalty for people who have abortions, even as onetime co-sponsors of the legislation back away from it.

The proposal from Republican state Rep. Rob Harris seeks to amend South Carolina’s criminal code so that all references to a “person” include a fertilized egg, embryo or fetus at any stage of development.

In effect, the bill would make aborting a pregnancy a homicide — which is a crime punishable by death in South Carolina. It’s not clear how the law would treat the disposal of eggs or embryos, but the bill’s text repeatedly refers to “the moment of fertilization.”

The legislation, deemed the South Carolina Prenatal Equal Protection Act of 2023, is currently awaiting action by the state’s House Judiciary Committee. Though the state’s Supreme Court has blocked other extreme abortion laws, suggesting this attempt faces an uphill battle, Harris’ effort shows just how far some “pro-life” politicians, empowered by the fall of Roe v. Wade, are willing to go.

Asked for confirmation that he stands by imposing capital punishment on people who abort their pregnancies, Harris — a registered nurse who assumed office three months ago — skirted around the issue.

“My bill does not single out women,” he wrote in an email to HuffPost. “It prohibits everyone from committing murder. It provides the same due process that everyone enjoys under our current laws.”

“We say to the unborn, ‘Your life for mine’, most often, out of convenience,” he continued. (In actuality, studies have found that the most common reason people seek out abortions is the financial burden of having children.)

Andrea Kaniarz of Lexington, South Carolina, watches the state's House of Representatives meet to discuss an abortion ban in September 2022.
Andrea Kaniarz of Lexington, South Carolina, watches the state's House of Representatives meet to discuss an abortion ban in September 2022.
The State via Getty Images

The reality of Harris’ bill is that people found guilty of homicide for having or providing an abortion would be punished in extreme ways. Anyone convicted of murder in South Carolina faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years to life in prison. Under certain circumstances — including when a child under 11 years of age is murdered — the minimum sentencing range escalates to either life in prison or the death penalty.

The bill, which allows few exceptions, garnered 23 co-sponsors in January and February — 20 of whom were men and all of whom were white. That’s despite South Carolina having one of the country’s biggest Black populations — a demographic group with a maternal mortality rate three times that of whites.

But as outrage over the proposed legislation has swelled in recent weeks, the number of co-sponsors on the bill has dwindled. In emails to the 21 co-sponsors who were still on the legislation as of Monday morning, HuffPost asked the lawmakers to confirm their support for punishing abortion patients with the death penalty.

“I did not understand that this was included in this bill,” Republican state Rep. Randy Ligon — the only one to write back within 24 hours — responded. “I do Not support capital punishment for women that terminate their pregnancy. I do not stand by this part of the legislation.”

In a subsequent email, Ligon said he’d removed his name from the list of co-sponsors. By late Monday, four others had quietly done the same.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee — the branch of the Democratic Party dedicated to electing Democrats to state legislatures — slammed supporters of Harris’ legislation on Tuesday.

“Given the opportunity, these Republican lawmakers would kill a woman for exercising her reproductive freedom,” DLCC spokesperson Gabrielle Chew said in a statement. “If it was up to the Republican Party, Americans would have no say over their own bodies and reproductive freedom would be banned across the country. The GOP is rotten to its core, and far too many lawmakers that hold these extreme views are in positions of power.”

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