RICHMOND, Va. – South Carolina became the latest state to move toward a near total abortion ban Wednesday with legislation that if enacted would leave Virginia an outlier in the South as a place that allows relatively permissive access to abortions amid a rapid rise in restrictions in the year since Roe v. Wade was overturned.
South Carolina is among the last bastions in the region for those seeking legal abortions, but that status could end soon. Access would be almost entirely banned after about six weeks of pregnancy — often before women know they’re pregnant — under the bill that now must pass the state Senate, which previously rejected a proposal to nearly outlaw abortions but could give final passage to the new legislation next week.
And most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy will be banned in North Carolina beginning July 1 after the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature successfully overrode the Democratic governor’s veto late Tuesday.
Abortion is banned or severely restricted in much of the South, including bans throughout pregnancy in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. In Georgia, it’s allowed only in the first six weeks.
Such restrictions are possible because the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which established a nationwide right to abortion.
“It would be just devastating for abortion access in the South,” Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said of the proposed six-week ban in South Carolina, the 12-week ban in North Carolina, and a six-week ban in Florida that will take effect only if the state's current 15-week ban is upheld by the state Supreme Court.
But North Carolina Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican, said she sees the 12-week ban and other restrictions in North Carolina's new law as “safeguards,” not obstacles to abortion.
“We seek to balance protecting unborn babies while ensuring the safety of mothers,” she said Tuesday.
Stricter bans across the South would heighten Virginia’s role as an access point and create a “ripple effect” as people travel from out of state to seek care, Lockhart said.
“Despite abortion providers' efforts to increase available appointments and expand access for patients through telemedicine, the dramatic influx in out-of-state patients will lead to longer wait times for people in those access states,” Lockhart said.
Virginia currently allows abortions in the first and second trimesters. An abortion is allowed in the third trimester only if three doctors certify the mother’s mental or physical health is at serious risk.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, pushed for a 15-week ban during this year’s legislative session, but that was defeated by the narrow Democratic majority in the state Senate.
Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, said Wednesday that the state's laws became out of step with its neighbors’ during years of “liberal influence.”
Virginians “are going to have to work to protect our Commonwealth from being exploited by the abortion industry,” Cobb said.
The costs of travel for women who need to go outside their home states for abortions can quickly pile up, said Ashlyn Preaux, who helps run an abortion fund in South Carolina. Her organization helps patients pay for abortion care as well as gas cards and sometimes plane tickets.
If South Carolina enacts new restrictions, she expects to help send more patients to Virginia and Washington, D.C.
"All of these things add up and it’s just not anything that people are prepared for,” Preaux said. “It’s not really treated at all like it’s a health care issue.”
The South Carolina House vote capped nearly 24 hours of grueling debate split across two days as the Republican supermajority tossed or defeated over 900 Democratic amendments. Lawmakers paused for roughly eight hours early Wednesday only after a computer glitch.
Democrats repeatedly spoke for all three minutes allotted per amendment. One would have required that residents read “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Another sought to make the state cover funeral costs for anyone who dies upon being denied an abortion.
Republican Rep. John McCravy urged colleagues to support “the only path forward to prevent our state from becoming an abortion destination state in the Southeast.”
Attention now turns to the Senate. Lawmakers could accept the House changes and send the measure to the governor who has indicated he would sign it. Or they could put the bill to a conference committee, where members from each chamber would have to work out their differences.
Until then, abortion remains legal through 22 weeks in South Carolina, and the state had already seen an increasing number of out-of-state patients before Florida and North Carolina enacted new restrictions. Farther west, women often travel to Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico or Colorado.
Provisional state health department data show South Carolina reported nearly 1,000 abortions in each of the first three months this year, after totaling just over 200 in the one full month that a previous six-week ban took effect last year. Nearly half of the patients reportedly came from other states.
Until Tuesday, North Carolina had been considered a safe space, said Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine doctor in Hillsborough. But now, “North Carolinians will be health care refugees to other states,” she said, also criticizing provisions of the law for potentially creating more paperwork, along with additional medical and licensing requirements.
Another challenge to abortion access was considered Wednesday when a federal appeals court heard arguments on whether the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the widely used abortion drug mifepristone should be overturned. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing a ruling by a federal judge in Texas who ordered a hold on approval of mifepristone, a decision that overruled two decades of scientific approval of the drug. That ruling was stayed while the appeal is pending.
Lawyers seeking to preserve access to the drug used in the most common method of abortion got pushback Wednesday from the appellate judges, who each have a history of supporting restrictions on abortion. A ruling is not expected immediately.
In Michigan, one of the leading states in protecting abortion rights since Roe v. Wade was overturned, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation Wednesday that will prohibit companies from firing or otherwise retaliating against workers for having an abortion.
The legislation amends the state’s civil rights law, which had previously only outlawed employment discrimination if an abortion was to “save the life of the mother.” It will ensure that workers cannot be treated differently for receiving an abortion regardless of reasoning.
This story was first published May 17, 2023. It was updated May 24, 2023 to remove an incorrect reference to Virginia law allowing unrestricted access to abortion. The state allows greater access than many Southern states but has restrictions on abortion.
Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan; James Pollard and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, and Gary Robertson and Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina. Schoenbaum and Pollard are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.