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South Carolina advances 6-week abortion ban

(Reuters) - South Carolina's Republican-controlled state House of Representatives late Wednesday passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill to ban abortions about six weeks into pregnancy, before most people know they are pregnant, moving it to the state Senate where its fate is less certain.

The measure, which passed mostly along party lines with a vote of 82 to 33, is a heavily amended version of a ban that the state Senate passed in February.

It failed then because House Republicans wanted to instead push through a near-total abortion ban, which five women in the state Senate banded together to block. A similar six-week ban passed last year was ruled unconstitutional by the South Carolina Supreme Court in January.

South Carolina is one of several U.S. states where Republican lawmakers are considering aggressive abortion restrictions this week over strong Democratic opposition. Near-total abortion bans have taken effect in 14 states since the Supreme Court revoked federal abortion rights in June 2022, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights advocacy research group.

South Carolina's Senate is expected to consider the new six-week ban on Tuesday. Some of the state senators who supported it originally have expressed opposition to the House version, leaving its fate uncertain.

The House passed the measure on Wednesday night after more than 24 hours of debate, as Democrats discussed hundreds of amendments they had introduced and the Republican majority rejected each one.

Republican Representative John McCravy defended the House bill as an improvement over the Senate version in brief remarks on Tuesday, noting that it toughened penalties for providers who violated the law and required minors to obtain a court order before getting an abortion in the first trimester.

Democrats used their amendments to draw attention to a range of related issues, from domestic abuse to gaps in existing healthcare services across the state.

Representative John Kirby on Wednesday asked Republicans how his constituents could possibly get abortions before six weeks, given that his district has no obstetrician-gynecologists. It took his own daughter 14 weeks to get an appointment after she realized she was pregnant, Kirby said.

One early amendment that Republican lawmakers rejected would have replaced the legislation with a statewide referendum over whether abortion should be protected in the state constitution.

"What are y'all afraid of?" asked Democratic Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter when introducing it on Tuesday. "Why won't you allow the voters to tell you what you claim... they believe?"

(Reporting by Julia Harte; additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)