Cunningham calls for SC legislature to wait until after election to take up abortion law changes

Published: Jun. 27, 2022 at 8:34 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - With Roe v. Wade now overturned, opening the door for state legislatures to impose tighter restrictions or total bans on abortions in their states, the South Carolina General Assembly will likely return to Columbia in the coming months to change the law.

But the Democrat hoping to unseat Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, former Lowcountry Congressman Joe Cunningham, is now calling for the legislature to delay taking up any changes to abortion law until after the November general election.

“Trust me when I tell you that voters will tell us exactly what they want us to do about this issue in November, and all that I am asking is that we give those voters a chance,” Cunningham said at a news conference at South Carolina Democratic Party offices in Columbia on Monday.

Cunningham’s call came three days after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark decision, which had guaranteed access to abortions nationwide for nearly 50 years, and hours before South Carolina’s “Fetal Heartbeat Law,” which bans most abortions after around six weeks, went into effect after being blocked in federal court for more than a year.

Cunningham specifically named three leading Republicans in his entreaty: McMaster, whom he will face on the ballot in November, along with Senate President Thomas Alexander of Oconee County and Speaker of the House Murrell Smith of Sumter County.

As leaders of their respective chambers, Alexander and Smith have the authority to summon their members to the State House for a special session. While a resolution to which the General Assembly agreed prior to ending its regular legislative session last month allows such a session to begin as early as Friday, members from both chambers have said they do not expect this to happen until the late summer or fall, but before the November election.

“Give the people a chance to have their voices heard. That’s what democracy is. That’s exactly what democracy is, is hearing what the people want,” Cunningham said.

Alexander’s office has not returned a request for a comment.

McMaster’s campaign said in a statement in response, in part, “Unborn children have been waiting a half-century to have their right to life protected, and the Governor isn’t going to wait any longer to give them that right just because Joe Cunningham wants a campaign issue.”

Smith’s office directed requests to Rep. John McCravy, (R–Greenwood), the chair of an ad hoc committee the Speaker recently established to take public testimony and guide the House’s legislative response to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The 12-member panel, made up of eight Republicans and four Democrats, is also tasked with writing up the details on H.5399, a placeholder bill introduced in the House on the last day of the regular legislative session that would “prohibit abortions in the state of South Carolina,” but does not yet include any other specifics.

McCravy, who supports a total ban with exceptions for the life and health of the mother but without them for rape or incest, said the House plans to act swiftly on this issue and characterized Cunningham’s call as “political peacocking.”

“For the former Congressman to ask the legislature to delay an action on this important issue, to me, is counterproductive to the desires of the people of South Carolina,” McCravy said.

Both McCravy and Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, (R–Edgefield), have said they would hold public hearings to take testimony before taking action in their chambers, vowing South Carolinians would have the opportunity to weigh in.

“Former Congressman Cunningham is one voice, but the people of South Carolina have elected 124 representatives and [46] senators to deal with this issue, so that’s who the people have elected in South Carolina to decide what our laws will be in this state, not Mr. Cunningham, with all due respect,” McCravy said.

Of course, by waiting until after the November election, Cunningham also hopes he will be elected governor.

If that happens, the Democrat has promised to veto any legislation that totally bans abortions, which the General Assembly could override with enough votes.

McMaster, meanwhile, has voiced his support for a ban without exceptions for rape or incest.

Cunningham said he supports codifying Roe into state law, ensuring access to the procedure in South Carolina.

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