COLUMBIA, S.C. — When the fight over the right to abortion fell to the states, it landed awkwardly in Senate Office 601, where two Republicans who share the same suite, receptionist and voice-mail box have campaigned all year against each other’s idea of “pro-life.”
On one side of the roughly 800-square-foot space is Sen. Rex Rice, 66, who said every pregnancy represented “God’s child” and pushed for a near-total ban on abortion in South Carolina.
On the other is Sen. Sandy Senn, 59, who, loudly enough for him to hear, slammed that approach as “all about controlling women.”
To her, “pro-life” means protecting women, too. So, with the Senate expected to vote as early as Tuesday on a bill that would ban most abortions after about six weeks, Senn criticized her colleague for refusing to support what she called the “reasonable” middle ground: outlawing the procedure after 12 weeks.
“I suspect his wife thinks what he’s doing is crazy, but I haven’t asked her,” Senn said one May afternoon, reclining behind her wooden desk. “Is he in there?”
The senators have been friends for seven years, ever since they were sworn in at the same time, and have vacationed together with their families in the Bahamas. Once, after Senn tangled with a prominent Democrat, Rice gifted her a pair of pink boxing gloves and a photo of a Chihuahua barking at a big dog, which reminded him of his 5-foot-3 suitemate taking on opponents who towered over her.
“It’s always interesting to me to watch the two- and three-pound dogs go after the big dogs,” he said. “The big dogs just don’t care.”
Today, the suitemates are locked in an uncomfortably personal stalemate — one that reflects broader discord between Republican lawmakers over how far to restrict abortion access now that Roe v. Wade has been struck down.
The tensions in Office 601 stem from an unusually stark gender divide that has emerged in the South Carolina State House as the Republican-dominated legislature keeps trying and failing to pass tighter abortion restrictions.
Senn, along with the two other Republican women in the Senate, has adopted rhetoric more typically used by Democrats to attack the antiabortion positions of her male colleagues.
Three times over the past eight months, as the chamber’s GOP leaders have sought to prohibit most procedures starting at conception, Senn — flanked by a bipartisan bloc of the Senate’s only women — has hustled to thwart what she views as attempts to “shackle women.” The group — three Republicans, an independent and a Democrat, who call themselves the “Sister Senators” — filibustered for three days last month to defeat a near-total ban.
“Even if we don’t agree with abortion, most of us agree with giving women some kind of escape hatch,” Senn said. “My male colleagues are taking the wrong approach. We’re going to lose people in the Republican Party.”
If Senn is successful, bright-red South Carolina, which currently prohibits abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy, could remain a destination for the procedure in the heavily restricted South. A 12-week ban would still permit the majority of abortions, though Democrats call the limit “extreme,” in part because many pregnancy complications, which could affect a woman’s decision, arise after that point.
Republicans deploy new playbook for abortion bans, citing political backlash
Roe’s demise last summer initially triggered a six-week ban in South Carolina. After legal challenges, however, the state’s Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional, kicking off internal GOP feuding that has remained unresolved.
Republican lawmakers in other conservative states have faced similar debates over the past year.
Under pressure from antiabortion activists, some have sought to virtually eliminate a practice they decry as murder. Others, noting that key swaths of voters have rejected dramatically rolling back abortion rights, are exploring less restrictive measures. North Carolina and Nebraska last week, for instance, enacted 12-week bans similar to the one Senn embraces.
She blamed Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey for leading the party “off a cliff on abortion” instead of being open to the 12-week “middle ground.” She pointed to polls showing that the majority of Americans think abortion in most cases should be legal.
Massey criticized Senn’s “overall” conduct.
“She firebombs,” he told The Washington Post. “She goes after people personally, and that has rubbed them the wrong way.”
Senn, a Charleston lawyer who raises chickens and owns nine guns, said she is focused on standing up for women. Many women don’t know they’re pregnant at six weeks, she said, giving them no time to make the best decision for their health. During one speech in April, she compared the all-male drive to strip women of “reasonable” reproductive agency to the dystopian world of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“It’s always about control, plain and simple,” she said. “And in the Senate, the males all have control.”
As she consulted her online thesaurus for filibuster material to combat the looming ban attempt, Rice, the senator from Pickens County, argued on his end of Office 601 in favor of it.
If it were all up to him, he would like to pass a bill banning abortion with no exceptions. To him, allowing exceptions was the middle-ground compromise, and banning abortion at six weeks was better than keeping access through 22 weeks.
“Every child is God’s child,” he said, “whether we like it or not.”
Still, because their receptionist was on vacation, he wound up taking messages for one of his chief legislative adversaries of the moment.
“I answer my phone better than Sandy does,” Rice said.
Both of the senators left their doors open. Rice tried not to listen to what Senn was saying on her end — “unless someone sticks their head out the door and hollers at me.”
They had sparred over bills before. Both tried to keep politics separate from their personal lives — though the fight to define “pro-life” was, to each of them, intensely personal. Both had a Bible by their desks. Both asked God to guide them.
They praised each other as good people. “Good people can be antiquated,” Senn had remarked. They agreed that the Senate’s gender breakdown — five women and 41 men — was way out of balance. Neither said they enjoyed the stalemate that was entering its ninth month.
“I would hope the females are influenced by the males in their lives,” Rice said, “just like the males are influenced by the females in their lives.”
Rice’s wife, Ruth, 61, said she also saw every pregnancy as “God’s child.” Unlike her husband, however, she would not say when, exactly, the law should draw the line. They had not discussed the six-week ban, she said, to that degree of detail.
“I don’t want to take a stand,” she said, “because I’m not in somebody’s shoes.”
Ahead of the vote, Senn expected more clashing that would keep lawmakers stuck in the same place: no consensus on restricting abortion, no progress on a Republican priority.
“It’s been hard for me to look at and talk to a lot of people,” she said.
Some of those people gathered one day last week in the State House, including the majority leader, Massey, who was chatting with Rice.
Senn strode past them for a caffeine break with the Sister Senators. Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy was sipping black tea with two scoops of matcha powder and two pumps of mango dragon fruit.
“For ten damn dollars,” cracked Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, “for a damn lizard drink.”
They all laughed. The discussion then shifted to strategy. The fourth abortion showdown would begin before June, they figured, and it wasn’t a given that the women would stand together again. Matthews, the Democrat in the group, and Sen. Mia McLeod, the independent, have leaned toward protecting abortion access through about 24 weeks.
Shealy and Sen. Penry Gustafson, the other two Republicans in the group, meanwhile, had voted in February for an earlier version of the six-week ban.
“I’m calling myself a whole lot more educated than I was back then,” Shealy said.
“Six weeks, for me, that was my compromise,” Gustafson said, “knowing how many people wanted a total ban.”
Neither expected to vote for it again, though, after fresh amendments from the House made the bill, in their view, more extreme. They had relayed that message to Massey.
“I call Senator Massey probably four times a week,” Shealy told the women. “I call whoever I’m mad at and get it off, and he does listen to me.”
“He’s very condescending to some of us,” replied McLeod. “He’s a nasty piece of work to some of us.”
Massey did not respond to that characterization.
She would probably prepare to filibuster. As would Senn and Matthews.
“You know what I did because they don’t like us talking about vaginas?” said Matthews. “I talk about female …”
“Mutilation,” Senn said.
“Genital mutilation,” Matthews continued, “and why that was another form of culture of men mutilating women so they could control them.”
After Senn brought up “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she said, a parent upstate lobbied to pull it from school library shelves. Today, another cultural reference was coming to mind. Maybe the theme of her next speech: “Drinking the Kool-Aid.”
Some of her colleagues — like Rice — genuinely believe abortion is wrong at every stage, she said. Senn didn’t fault them for that. She called them “true believers.”
She suspected, though, that the others — perhaps the majority — felt pressured just to go along with something that, she thought, was ultimately toxic to the party.
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