Surprise news in SC: A bill to improve birth control access passed the House

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The bill would be a boon for women’s reproductive health in South Carolina — but it faces a steep uphill climb to become law.

A bill passed the South Carolina House of Representatives last week that would allow doctors to prescribe birth control for three years at a time. The motion passed 50-47 with Democrats and Republicans voting on both sides.

If the bill became law, it would be a boon for women’s reproductive health care in South Carolina. Contraception must be taken consistently to be effective, and research shows that women are better able to stick to their birth control regimen when they can obtain a year’s supply or more at one time, without having to go back and forth to doctor’s offices and pharmacies.

But it’s highly uncertain whether the bill will pass the Senate — and the bill’s passage in the House was somewhat surprising. The chamber’s legislative majority often votes along conservative lines, especially on issues of reproductive rights.

The House vote was doubly interesting because the bill was sponsored exclusively by men. The bill’s four sponsors were Representatives Wendell Gilliard, Robert Q. Williams, and Joseph Jefferson, and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford — all Democrats and all members of the legislative black caucus.  

“It’s a good bill for young people,” Rep. Williams told the Post and Courier. He was optimistic, saying that the bill will reduce “running back and forth” to doctors for a new prescription. 

In another twist, this was the second time the same exact bill was voted on in the House in the span of less than two weeks. The bill was first rejected 33-69 on Feb. 27, but was reconsidered on March 8. Williams told the Post and Courier that the bill passed this time because legislators did not understand the bill the first time.

And Williams has reason to make that claim. An analysis by 50 States of Blue found that almost a third of yea votes the second time came from members who voted no the first time. 

But another significant factor in the bill’s passing was simply a matter of who showed up. According to the South Carolina Constitution, the state House of Representatives can call for a vote as long as there is a quorum, or a minimum number of members present. As long as more than 63 members are present in the House, they can call for votes.

50 States of Blue found that while 102 of the House’s 124 members voted the first time, and 97 the second time, only 81 House members showed up to vote both times. Moreover, many key House members who voted both times switched their votes; 17 legislators switched their votes from no to yes, and 3 switched from yes to no.

Of the 17 people who changed their votes from no to yes, 13 were Republican men. The simple explanation for this is that there are simply more men in the South Carolina House of Representatives. In the House, only 22 of the total 124 members are women, evenly split across both parties. Adjusting for size, women account for only a fourth of House Democrats and 15 percent of House Republicans.

Surprisingly, however, not one Republican woman voted for the bill either time. Still, all 11 Republican and all 11 Democratic women showed up to vote both times, suggesting they were far more invested in the outcome than some of their male colleagues.

While most of the lost “no” votes came from people switching, a modest amount came from people not showing up to vote at all. Almost 40 percent of the House members who voted no the first time did not show up to vote no a second time.

Passage in the Senate is far from certain

While advocates of expanded access to reproductive health care in South Carolina got a win in the House, it seems unlikely they will get another one in the Senate. 

Some Republicans and Democrats voted across party lines, but that doesn’t mean the bill had broad bipartisan support; most kept on their side of the aisle. Without counting the 20 total people who switched their vote, 36 Democrats and 8 Republicans voted for the bill; 53 Republicans and zero Democrats voted against it. 

Furthermore, the Post and Courier reports, the state Senate has never debated a bill that allows doctors to prescribe even one year’s worth of birth control for South Carolina residents.

And perhaps most importantly, the South Carolina Senate has been seriously considering an extreme “personhood amendment” that would essentially outlaw abortion — not to mention in vitro fertilization, and possibly even some forms of contraception — by defining a fertilized embryo as a “person” with full rights under the law. 

The controversial bill is delayed in a Senate Judiciary Committee that has yet to determine whether it is constitutional. But it’s still an indication of just how regressive the debate over reproductive rights tends to be in our state legislature — and just how big of an uphill climb a bill expanding access to birth control will likely have.