They call themselves “Sister Senators” and together, crossing party lines, they’re the only thing stopping the male-dominated South Carolina legislature from passing an abortion ban.
The five women include three Republicans who identify as pro-life, plus a Democrat and an independent who lean pro-choice. Together, they share a common belief that banning abortion is not about saving unborn lives, it’s about controlling women.
“If you don’t believe me, just look up personhood,” Republican state Sen. Sandy Senn told The Daily Beast. “They (the GOP legislature) want to end abortion and get to zero exceptions, and then they want to attack birth control.” Senn said in a recent debate over the issue that a Republican colleague declared “the only proper birth control is a condom, everything else is sinful.” If that isn’t about control, Senn asks, what is?
The five female senators are the only women in the 51-seat senate chamber, and their unity has held through eight months of contentious debate, countless hours of filibustering, and three failed attempts by their male colleagues in the Republican super-majority to push through a near total abortion ban. The male legislators have the votes for a six-week ban, which is before most women realize they’re pregnant, but they wanted an even more extreme ban, which is when they ran into the buzzsaw of the five women.
“I’m the only Republican who did not support a six-week ban,” Senn says. “I lost that argument.” She favors a 12-week ban, but recognizes that politics is the art of the possible, and together with the other women amended the proposed six-week ban to include important exceptions, such as allowing doctors to proceed with emergency care when a woman’s life or health is threatened without first requiring an ultrasound to check for a fetal heartbeat.
The bill would also repeal a 1974 law that makes seeking an abortion a criminal act.
“We’ve told the House they can’t change a colon or a semicolon, and they gave us 14 pages of amendments,” Senn says. “So now we are back to another upcoming filibuster and our fourth time addressing abortion this year. Meanwhile we have failed so far to pass much needed bills such as one dealing with fentanyl trafficking and many more.”
This tiny cohort of women are blocking the worst of the worst legislation denying women access to abortion.
“Did you know that with us five women here in the state senate, that there are millions—literally millions—of people here in South Carolina depending on the five of us to make sure this bill is just so?” Republican Sen. Penny Gustafson said in describing the challenge before them.
Complicating matters, the state Supreme Court in January ruled unconstitutional an earlier six-week abortion ban, hastily passed last year after Roe was overturned in 2022. However, the deciding vote on the Court, a woman, retired. The legislature replaced her with a man, boosting the likelihood that a new six-week ban could survive the court test.
South Carolina is the only state where legislators elect judges, and the mostly male GOP supermajority rallied around the only male in contention, rejecting two qualified female judges, to make the state’s highest court the only all-male Supreme Court in the nation.
Tyler Jones is a Democratic political consultant in South Carolina, and he told The Daily Beast that the ongoing battle over abortion is the result of the Republican Party not having a clear strategy on the issue.
“After Roe, they became the official party of the dog that caught the car,” he says. “What the legislature is doing, they’re trying to give the Court another chance. The six-week ban is their insurance policy if they can’t get the full ban passed (no abortion after conception).”
“This is Plan C,” Jones continues, to have the Court uphold the bill not because the bill has changed, the Court has changed.”
The Republican women have been the target of anti-abortion protesters, who last month distributed plastic spines from “the pre-born” urging the women to stand with their party. “I’ve got one hell of a spine already, but now I’ve got another backup,” Sen. Katrina Shealy said as she stood alongside the two other Republicans—Sens. Senn and Gustafson—all proudly holding aloft their plastic spines.
“It’s good what they’re doing, but it’s hard to give them too much credit here,” says Jones, pointing out that except for Sen. Senn, the two other Republican women voted for the six-week abortion ban. “One of the most draconian laws in the history of our country,” he called it, adding, “Okay, you’re not total fascists, but you could do better.”
That’s the issue—could they do better?
Abortion is currently legal at 22 weeks in South Carolina, a law that is unlikely to survive much longer. Women have found their voice in the senate, but they are a distinct minority in a body that ranks 47th in the nation in female representation and is determined to end abortion. The Sister Senators have added exceptions for rape and incest, but a six-week abortion ban doesn’t allow much leeway for real life getting in the way.
“We the women have not asked for, nor do we want, your protection,” Sen. Senn said, directing her gaze at her male colleagues on the floor, as she soldiered through yet another filibuster last month.
“We don’t need it. We don’t buy into the ruse that what you really want is to take care of us,” said the Republican senator from deep-red South Carolina.