These Women Are Not Abortion Heroes

A group of Republican lawmakers in South Carolina are being widely praised for standing up against abortion bans. The thing is, they aren't really doing that.

These Women Are Not Abortion Heroes
South Carolina Republican State Sens. Katrina Shealy and Penry Gustafson Photo:AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins (AP)

On Sunday, the New York Times published a story lauding the five women serving in the South Carolina state Senate for banding together to block a near-total abortion ban after fertilization. One is a Democrat, one’s an Independent, and three are Republicans; they call themselves “the Sister Senators.” It all sounds very nice, and the Times sent a photographer to take their portraits. The headline reads: “The Unexpected Women Blocking South Carolina’s Near-Total Abortion Ban.”

Unfortunately, these women are not all heroes: Of the three Republicans who blocked a near-total ban, two voted for a separate six-week ban—which is also pretty much a near-total abortion ban, as it’s before many people even realize they’re pregnant. Make it make sense.

It’s not until the 20th paragraph of the Times story that we learn this very important piece of context. (A fact the Times does note.) The South Carolina House could pass that bill, S.B. 474, this week, which would further decimate abortion access across the South.

Sens. Katrina Shealy (R) and Penry Gustafson (R) voted for S.B. 474, while Sen. Sandy Senn (R) voted against it—but she still supports a ban after the first trimester. The Times said, “Their positions hardly make them champions to reproductive rights groups”—though you might not know that if you didn’t read past the first 927 words. Then: “The Republican women successfully insisted on adding exceptions for medical emergencies or cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal anomalies.” For almost a year now, since the end of Roe, dozens of stories have pointed out that these exceptions don’t work in practice.

In September, Gustafson said of the ban after fertilization: “This bill does not recognize or even acknowledge another right besides the right of the baby. So, do we women have no autonomy over our own bodies? Are we simply baby machines?” But again, come February, she voted for a ban after six weeks.

Still, Shealy and Gustafson got to speak to the paper of record and paint the six-week ban as a “compromise.” They told the reporter that they don’t actually support banning abortion that early, but voted for it anyway:

Ms. Gustafson and Sandy Senn, the third Republican, would prefer to restrict abortion after the first trimester, with exceptions. Ms. Shealy said if it were up to her personally, she would leave the decision to women, their partners and their doctors: “Women know what’s best for their bodies.”
…They call [S.B. 474] a compromise between the ban at conception and bills they put forward that would have placed the question of abortion rights to voters on the ballot, or banned abortion after the first trimester, with exceptions. The Republican leadership in the Senate declined to put those measures to a vote.

Here are some more quotes from Shealy, who voted for a six-week abortion ban:

  • “Women and their doctors and their husbands or partners should be making these decisions; 170 legislators in the state of South Carolina don’t need to be making these choices.”
  • “I don’t think the Republican Party saw us coming, because we didn’t do what they thought we were going to do. They thought we would do just what they told us to do.”
  • “I don’t believe any woman goes out on Friday night and has sex and gets pregnant so she can have an abortion the next day.”

And here is a quote from Gustafson, who also voted for the six-week ban: “Banning at conception ‘allows nothing for the in-between or things we can’t even conceive of,’ she said. ‘There are too many things that can happen.’”

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler, director of engagement for the Carolina Abortion Fund, told Jezebel in a statement that their callers will suffer under the policies and nominal exceptions these lawmakers support. “South Carolinians deserve bold champions for abortion care,” she said. “And with a potential 6-week ban looming, we remain frustrated that compromising our bodily autonomy and freedom is upheld in many mainstream publications as a virtue.”

If the House passes this ban, we’ll know exactly who to thank for it—all while these women are praised for being brave reproductive rights heroes.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Carolina Abortion Fund.

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