COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) - Unborn children would receive constitutional rights beginning at conception under a "Stand Your Ground" law that allows women in South Carolina to use lethal force against anyone threatening their fetuses.
The South Carolina Senate Judiciary Subcommittee voted 3-2 this month to expand the state's "Stand Your Ground" law to include protections for unborn babies.
The bill defines an "unborn child" as "the offspring of human beings from conception until birth."
People may use deadly force to protect themselves and others against the threat of "imminent peril of death or great bodily injury" under the state's current law.
Supporters of the "Pregnant Women's Protection Act" claimed that without this law, pregnant women could face attacks that may cause them to miscarry, but that might not justify the use of lethal force.
The "Pregnant Women's Protection Act," sponsored by state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, was debated at the same time as two other bills that sought to grant personhood to embryos.
Opponents, including organizations providing women's health services, are concerned that the bill is designed to take away women's access to birth control, in-vitro fertilization, emergency contraception and other basic healthcare options.
"It could outlaw contraception, any form of hormonal birth control, and emergency contraception that is usually given to victims of rape," Emma Davidson, a spokeswoman for New Morning Foundation, told Courthouse News.
"It would also have implications for in-vitro fertilization, which involves being able to work in the time frame that this bill would impact. It would make it financially unrealistic for any clinic to practice it in that time frame."
Columbia-based New Morning Foundation is a nonprofit working for young people's reproductive health education, counseling, and clinical services throughout South Carolina.
"No one disputes that violence against pregnant women is a concern in our state, and few would deny the need for swift action to stop any instances of further violence," Davidson said. "But it is hypocritical to introduce legislation claiming to protect victims of domestic abuse, rape and violence while simultaneously outlawing emergency contraception, a key treatment option for those victims."
Davidson said "personhood" bills are introduced every year in South Carolina, but have failed to pass into law.
"These bills like to define a human being as a 'person' at fertilization, which would create a variety of restrictions that would limit the reproductive and family building choices of hundreds of thousands of South Carolina residents," said Dr. Michael Slowey, a reproductive endocrinologist and founder of Coastal Fertility Specialists in Mount Pleasant. "Specifically, these bills would put an end to our ability to perform in-vitro fertilization, provide contraception and effectively treat abnormal pregnancies, including life-threatening ectopic pregnancies."
Marcia Zug, a University of South Carolina law professor, testified during the state Senate hearing on a companion bill that had similar language on life defined as beginning at conception.
"This bill is not a direct challenge to abortion, but certainly it has a lot of support from people who are hoping it would challenge it," Zug said about the Stand Your Ground for your fetus bill.
"We would have for the first time a law that specifically defines pregnancy and life as beginning at conception, and that is very important language for people who want to ban abortion - which would then be equated with murder," Zug said.
The other two bills that would give human embryos the same rights as humans did not make it to a vote before the Senate panel adjourned.
"This bill is unnecessary for any reason other than to challenge the legality of abortion," Zug said. "South Carolina already has a very robust Stand Your Ground law. There was the argument that there is a possibility that a woman could be defending her unborn child but not her own life. Most attacks that would harm a fetus would be [dangerous] enough to harm a woman and she would be able to use current protections.
"Women don't know when they conceive," she added. "There is a period there when a woman doesn't know she's pregnant, so she wouldn't be able to use the new protections in that period of time."
Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at reproductive health nonprofit Guttmacher Institute in Washington, said the bill, although not a direct challenge to abortion or contraception, could be part of a strategy to ban these rights.
"We've seen these bills before," Nash said in a telephone interview. "There are similar laws in effect in Oklahoma and Arkansas, but what makes the South Carolina bill so different is that it's the first time this sort of bill would be added into the Stand Your Ground law."
Some other states' bills include provisions that pregnant women can protect themselves by using lethal force if they are attacked. At least 23 states, including South Carolina, have fetal homicide laws that apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy and provide for increased criminal penalties for crimes against pregnant women. These laws, however, focus on the harm done to a pregnant woman, not on the rights of the fetus.
"The South Carolina bill also creates this definition of unborn child which essentially grants personhood at fertilization," Nash said. "The message here is that abortion opponents would take any spot in the statute to promote this idea that a fetus is a person. Part of this is to create some statutory language around when personhood begins, and the hope is that eventually abortion would be banned and that these laws would have helped to make this happen."
Nash said the bill is redundant, because South Carolina's "Stand Your Ground" law already allows people to protect themselves by using lethal force.
"This is all about politics and rhetoric," she said.
In March, state Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, backed by former law enforcement officials, introduced a bill to repeal South Carolina's "Stand Your Ground" law. That proposal would eliminate the right to use deadly force against someone perceived as a threat in a public space, limiting the "Stand Your Ground" legal defense to those defending their homes, cars and businesses.
Sen. Shealy, the sponsor of the Stand Your Fetus' Ground bill, and state Sen. George "Chip" Campsen, R-Charleston, who supports the proposal, did not respond to requests for comment.