By Amber Keitt
Here’s what you might already know: Tomorrow (February 29), my neighbors in Charleston, South Carolina, will head to the polls to cast their ballots in the Democratic presidential primary.
But here’s what you might not know: Four days later, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Russo, a case challenging a medically unnecessary abortion restriction in Louisiana. The case could pave the way for states like South Carolina to effectively ban abortion for more than 25 million people.
You may not know this because it never came up at the Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston on Tuesday (February 25). Not a single question was asked over the course of the two-hour debate about reproductive rights. Or at the debate last week in Las Vegas. Or in January at the debate in Des Moines, Iowa. In fact, discussion about how to protect and expand abortion access has rarely made it to the presidential debate stage at all.
I was at the debate in Charleston, and I sat in the audience with a sinking heart. Millions of people might soon be facing a world where the protections of Roe v. Wade are rendered virtually meaningless. In the face of these excruciatingly high stakes, it is a huge disservice to voters in South Carolina and across the country to deny them the opportunity to hear from the presidential candidates about their plans to protect and expand reproductive rights for all.
As an organizer for Planned Parenthood Votes South Atlantic, I hear stories on the ground every day about the issues that weigh heavily on the minds of South Carolinians — from the lack of adequate education funding, to the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate for Black women, to dwindling health care access in the rural parts of our state. I also hear from South Carolinians that they are scared of losing their right to make their own reproductive health care decisions: Republican state lawmakers have been attempting to limit or fully restrict access to safe, legal abortion in South Carolina for years — despite the fact that 78 percent of residents oppose banning abortion.
And as a Black woman, I’ve seen firsthand how anti-abortion supporters and politicians in South Carolina have tried to weaponize race politics against our right to make our own reproductive health care decisions — and I know we can expect to see them double down on their attacks using other tactics.
In 2019, I helped drive volunteers to our state capital — and my hometown — of Columbia, where anti-abortion lawmakers in the South Carolina House of Representatives were pushing one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. The bill would have outlawed abortion at six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant.
I’ll never forget the diversity and strength of the South Carolinians who stepped up to the podium to share their stories and testify against the ban — including Planned Parenthood supporters in pink shirts, women and men and entire families, people of color, folks of all income levels and faith backgrounds, those who traveled from the rural corners of our state and those who came from our city centers. On the proponents side of the aisle: Almost all men.
That abortion ban never made it to the governor’s desk, thanks to the voices of South Carolinians and our champions in the state legislature who knew it wasn’t the role of politicians to get between us and our personal reproductive health care decisions. But I know attacks like these are the beginning, not the end, of efforts by anti-abortion politicians to chip away at our rights.
Just this week, the United States Senate failed to advance a bill introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that would have banned abortion beginning at 20 weeks. Sen. Graham has sponsored this bill since 2013, ignoring the calls of his constituents that want abortion to stay safe and legal in our state.
I’m proud to be doing the work in my community and my state to protect reproductive health care and abortion access for whoever needs it, because your ZIP code and your income level shouldn’t determine whether or not you get the care you need. But I, and the other activists who are fighting for reproductive freedom, can’t do it alone. Given the stakes at hand, our elected officials need to understand that every citizen has a right to bodily autonomy and it is their duty to protect that right. We need to hear that candidates up and down the ballot not only understand that our rights are in jeopardy, but also present a bold plan to correct course and expand our rights for generations to come.
Our fundamental rights and our health care deserve, at bare minimum, to get a conversation on the national debate stage. It’s time to do better, for South Carolina, and for the entire country.
Amber Keitt is the Charleston Field Organizer for Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic