Why this South Carolina Democrat Bucked his Party and Voted for the ‘Heartbeat’ Abortion Ban
Rep. Russell Ott was one of only two Democrats in the South Carolina House to vote for the Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act, which restricts abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — as early as six weeks post-gestation.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Only two South Carolina House Democrats voted to ban on most abortions in the state on Wednesday, and one of them explained that his “consistent” view on the right to life helped him overcome reservations about the legislation.
Rep. Russell Ott, D, was one of only two Democrats in the South Carolina House to vote for the Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act, which restricts abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — as early as six weeks post-gestation.
Ott told CNA on Wednesday that the abortion issue is not an “easy” one for him, but that everyone—including the unborn—deserves an opportunity to live.
“I feel like I need to continue to be consistent,” he told CNA. “An unborn child is still a human being,” he said, adding that “I can’t separate myself from that.”
The House passed the bill overwhelmingly on Wednesday, and on Thursday Gov. Henry McMaster, R, signed it into law. Planned Parenthood also announced on Thursday that it was challenging the law in court.
During legislative debate over the bill on Wednesday, Democrats walked out of the state House chamber in protest.
Under the law, doctors would face a felony charge and up to two years in prison for performing an illegal abortion after a baby’s heartbeat has been detected. Mothers seeking abortions could not be criminally prosecuted, however.
According to data from the state’s health office, 55% of abortions in South Carolina in 2019 were performed after six weeks. The legislation includes exceptions for a pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, in the case of a “fetal anomaly,” or when the life of the mother is at stake.
The diocese of Charleston supported the legislation. The director of the state’s Catholic Conference, Michael Acquilano, called the passage of the bill “a historic day for the pro-life movement in South Carolina,” according to The Catholic Miscellany.
Other states have passed “heartbeat” abortion bans, including Georgia, Missouri, Louisiana, Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Dakota.
During debate over the legislation, Democratic leader Todd Rutherford said his caucus cares about “people not dying after they’re born.”
“We don’t believe that life begins when science says it does not,” he said, calling the vote a “farce” that is “about ‘pretend life’.” Announcing the walkout, Rutherford told Republicans that his caucus would “leave you all to the farce which is a debate about—life?”
In a statement on Wednesday, Ott expressed reservations about the bill and said he offered several amendments to it, but ultimately decided to vote for the legislation because “everyone has a right to life.”
In an interview with CNA on Wednesday, Ott explained his reservations and why he is “pro-life for the whole life.”
“I acknowledge that being a man, I can’t put myself in a woman’s shoes,” he told CNA. “I’ve never wanted to come across as someone who is telling someone else what they can and can’t do with their bodies.” However, he said he had to be “consistent” in his support of the right to life.
Ott says the issue is not an “easy” one for him.
The life issue “has always been an internal struggle for me,” he said, adding that he is “concerned when people say it’s easy for them.”
He said he wished state Republicans were more serious about public benefits for children and adults as they are about protecting unborn children.
“You want to get serious? Then let’s reform our public education system in the state, which has historically lagged behind everyone else, right?” he asked. “We’ve got food deserts. We’ve got lack of broadband accessibility in the rural parts of South Carolina.”
“I only see this passion from individuals when we’re dealing with abortion. And so that is concerning to me,” he said.
Ott said he had reservations about the bill, including its requirement that a doctor report a rape to law enforcement. He also tried to strike a provision allowing for private attorneys to defend the bill in court on behalf of the state and at the expense of the taxpayers. He also sought to create an office that would help steer pregnant women to resources available to them. His amendments were not included in the final bill.
He was critical of both major political parties for using abortion as a “wedge” political issue.
“There’s a lot of common ground that can be found, but it can’t be found if we’ve got one party that’s pointing to the other party and calling them ‘baby killers,’ and we can’t have it if the other party is pointing back at the other ones and saying that they don’t give a darn about women,” he said.
“And I just think both sides have gotten to a point where they’ve dug in and they use it as a political wedge in society, and I think that is not good for us as a state or a country.”