Election year expected to impact legislatures as pro-life advocacy continues

Tony Beam, a policy consultant with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, had not been able to enter the room for the overflow on the South Carolina Legislature’s opening day as a subcommittee considered a bill to protect minors from gender transitions.

The subcommittee was considering priorities for the session, which Beam expects to address gender transitions through House Bill 4624, named the Do Not Harm Bill; the Child Online Safety Act, H3424, requiring porn sites to verify the ages of those entering the sites and put blockers on cell phones; and the South Carolina Social Media Act, H4700, requiring parental consent for those under age 18 to open social media sites.

The legislation aimed at helping youth grow into healthy adults follows South Carolina’s 2023 heartbeat bill protecting life in the womb by prohibiting abortions after six weeks’ gestation, with exceptions to protect the lives of mothers. Beam, who also advocates for life as vice chair of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission trustee board, doesn’t expect additional legislation to protect the unborn this year.

“There’s pro-life legislation that’s been filed,” he said, “but I don’t think they’re going to bring pro-life legislation through the committee process or to the floor. We’re not going to be able to get anything through the Senate, other than what we have.”

Despite Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, South Carolina was unable to pass a bill in the Senate last year that would have outlawed abortions at conception, Beam said, lamenting the Senate’s inability to get past filibusters the two times the House passed the most protective pro-life measures.

As Americans prepare to elect a president and members of the 119th Congress in November, Beam said it’s unclear how aggressively legislatures across the nation will pursue pro-life issues.

“Democrats believe that abortion is a winning issue for them,” Beam said. “They believe that Roe v. Wade … has so electrified their base, plus they’ve changed the language. They don’t even call it pro-choice anymore. It’s pro-women’s health, pro-women’s rights and pro-liberty. And those are phrases that are gaining some traction with voters.”

While Republican-led states generally can secure protections for life legislatively, the opposite is true for Democratic-led states like Illinois. There, protections must come through Bible-based education and advocacy in the church and community.

Lisa Misner, public policy manager with the Illinois Baptist State Association (IBSA), sees opportunities to continue advocating for life there, despite limited inroads legislatively.

“Our churches will just really try to work to promote a culture of life because of all that goes on in our state,” Misner said.

Surrounded by states with pro-life protections, Illinois has become an abortion hub. In the last six months of 2022 after Roe v. Wade was overturned, 17,000 women from 40 states came to Illinois for abortions, according to numbers from the Illinois Department of Health and Planned Parenthood. That’s nearly a 50 percent increase in abortions in the state over the previous year, Misner said.

Doctors from other states including Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee have set up shop there, Misner said, “because our state leaders have really made it a welcoming climate. They’ve basically invited them here.

“As crass and bad as it sounds, really abortion tourism is what they’ve created,” Misner said. “There are women’s organizations in the state that will pay for other women … to come to our state to have an abortion. They will pay for their travel. They will pay for their lodging. They’ll pay for them to bring their other children, and to even (provide childcare).”

The IBSA is working to combat the growth of abortion in the state.

“It’s so much about promoting a culture of life … whole life … in our churches — because it’s more than just that baby being born, but that child throughout its entire life, and that child’s entire family who needs support.”

IBSA works through Alliance Defending Freedom to inform churches of pertinent laws, and offers churches opportunities to protect life by supporting pregnancy care centers and related ministries. Countering 26 businesses providing abortions in the state are 97 pregnancy care centers, according to Americans United for Life.

Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Services, including a crisis pregnancy clinic and a maternity home, also support women in crisis pregnancies and give churches opportunities to support the ministry.

South Carolina and Illinois are among 39 states with legislatures currently in session, according to the LegisScan tracking site, with six others convening by April. Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Texas, meeting on alternate years, will not convene in 2024.

Pro-life legislation is being considered in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Florida, with ballot initiatives that threaten life protections expected in Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, New York, Maryland and Florida, Americans United for Life reported.

As legislative sessions begin, abortions already are illegal at any time of pregnancy in 15 states, with some providing exceptions for rape, incest and to save the lives of mothers. These are Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

In addition to South Carolina, Georgia also has a heartbeat bill, typically outlawing abortions at six weeks of pregnancy. Abortions are legal through 12 weeks of pregnancy in Nebraska and North Carolina, and through 15 weeks of pregnancy in Florida.

(Editor’s Note: Sunday, Jan. 21, was Sanctity of Life Sunday in the Southern Baptist Convention.

— Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.