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A few Republicans spoke up and stopped abortion bans in their states

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

An initial wave is now a steady stream of Republican-led states trying to tighten abortion restrictions following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. North Dakota banned nearly all abortions on Monday. And yesterday, South Carolina and Nebraska legislatures tried to advance strict bans on abortion until a handful of Republican lawmakers spoke out. In Nebraska, 80-year-old Republican State Senator Merv Riepe withheld his key vote on a bill that would have banned abortions around six weeks into a pregnancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERV RIEPE: We heard from physician after physician regarding the proposed six-week ban. Six weeks to make critical life decisions was expressed as a near-total ban and not conducive to a high quality of health care. I agree.

BLOCK: Hours earlier, in South Carolina, six Republican state senators also blocked a near-total abortion ban from advancing. Here's one of those Republicans, Sandy Senn, filibustering the bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDY SENN: Because abortion laws have always been, each and every one of them, about control. It's always about control - plain and simple.

BLOCK: And State Senator Sandy Senn joins us now from Charleston. Welcome to the program.

SENN: Pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: Why don't you explain why you opposed this bill that did fail yesterday in South Carolina? It would have banned abortion from the moment of conception. What was your opposition to that?

SENN: Well, because it's crazily oppressive. I don't like any bills that, to me, are radical - whether that's from the left or the right. And I do just so much wish that politics would move more toward the middle. And, you know, on these divisive issues, it just needs to be on a ballot. And the men in our legislature - they're just not going to let that happen, and our legislature is overwhelmingly male.

BLOCK: Overwhelmingly male - in fact, there are only five women in the South Carolina Senate among 46 members. All of you, Democrats and Republicans, spoke out and voted against this near-total ban. What does that tell you?

SENN: Well, we've done it before, so this should not have come as a surprise to my leadership. And, in fact, when we got the word that he was going to bring this up for the third time in six months, we all, even the men, told him that this was a bad idea, but he insisted. So this time, we just gave them an earful. They're wasting our time. They're wasting the state's money. And if they would just go with something reasonable, they could pass it. But nobody on this issue can even agree what reasonable means, and so I don't know of any other way to get it done except for a ballot.

BLOCK: Well, what would be reasonable for you? What role do you think government should have in regulating abortion?

SENN: Right. In my view - and this is just where I've come down, and it's the best moderate place that I know to be - is first trimester with exceptions. But these people, especially over in the House of Representatives - and they've got a caucus over there called the Freedom Caucus. They say that they're not going to go with six weeks, not going to go with 12 weeks - it's going to be zero or nothing. So right now, they're stuck with a law that's up to 22 weeks, and then they turn around and call me a baby killer.

BLOCK: Just to be clear, when you say the first trimester would be your dividing line, you're talking about a ban after 12 weeks, I believe.

SENN: Yes.

BLOCK: How does that square with what we heard you say, which is that abortion laws have always been, each and every one of them, about control?

SENN: Right. But you can't - in my view, you've got to adjust the scale toward the life in the womb, and I don't consider it - up to 12 weeks, it's not even a fetus. It's not even an embryo. And it's the size of a fingernail. And to me, really, a lot of times, when you feel that baby move, that's generally right around that time or maybe a month later. You got to take into account - and if you're going to make the decision, I hope you don't. I mean, I don't want women to have abortions. But I am not their judge, and I am not going to take away something that they feel is just vital. But they do need to make a decision sooner rather than later, but six weeks is too short.

BLOCK: I understand. And I've seen photos that you and other Republicans who opposed this abortion ban were given - well, I guess it was called gift bags....

SENN: Yeah (laughter).

BLOCK: ...Signed, the preborn. What was in those bags?

SENN: It was an infant-sized spine - skeleton, basically. I guess they thought that that was going to be effective. It was Students for Life or something. They also were the ones that sent the postcard that said I'd killed 5,000 babies, but it didn't offend me. It definitely offended the rest of my sister senators. Now, my assistant, when she saw that crumpled-up bag with a spine in it, she thought I wouldn't want it. So she threw it away. And we had to go get security to dig it up because I thought it was funny, and now I keep it on my desk.

BLOCK: Just to be clear, these are plastic models of small spines.

SENN: It's like what a chiropractor would use to show you your spine, but it was an infant-sized spine.

BLOCK: Was there some subtext there of, you know, get a spine; vote for this bill?

SENN: Yes. It was get a spine. And I am laughing on that. Those students need to stay in school because, you know, when you buck your party, that is having a spine. None of us women needed to get one, that's for sure.

BLOCK: I've been talking with South Carolina State Senator Sandy Senn. She's a Republican. Senator Senn, thanks very much for talking with us.

SENN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.