Opinion | Republican Sandy Senn Wants Voters to Have a Say on Abortion

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Republicans have struggled politically with the issue of abortion since the overturning of Roe v. Wade — a point proven several times over with anti-abortion measures failing in relatively conservative states. Just this month, Ohio added abortion rights to the State Constitution and Republicans lost control of the Virginia Statehouse.

Some members of the party have had enough. In South Carolina this year, State Senator Sandy Senn was one of three Republicans who, along with a fellow Democratic senator and an independent senator, filibustered efforts to severely restrict abortion in the state. The “sister senators,” as they call themselves, were ultimately unsuccessful in preventing a six-week abortion ban from taking effect. Ms. Senn says that she does not want women to have abortions, but believes voters must have a say, and that there must be a more moderate path on policy. “It should not be a bunch of old men in the South Carolina Legislature deciding their fate,” she told me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: How did you react to the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and how did you think Republicans at the state level would react? Now looking back, thinking about it?

Senator Senn: I just thought, “Dear heavens, they have to realize that even though they say equal protection is still in place, girls from one state are going to be treated differently than girls from another state, and especially girls in the Bible Belt are going to be treated more harshly than in other areas.” So I knew then that we had a serious problem, because at least in our state, we were going to have a hell of a challenge. And we did.

But I can tell you that, I think now, since there are so many variations of these bills, this is something that the federal officials need to take up. And barring it being placed on every state as a referendum issue, which it can’t in our state because we don’t have voter-driven referendums and we’re overwhelmingly male in our legislature, then what can we do?

To me, we now need to also take a look at the Equal Rights Amendment. Women really do not have equal rights now, because what the court has given, the court can take away. We always knew that, and now we definitely know it.

Coaston: What do you think other Republicans don’t understand about how women view legislative efforts to restrict abortion?

Senn: I think a lot of Republicans do understand, and they feel the heat, and they know that this is a losing issue. But they are so scared to lose their own seat that they vote in the way that they think the party wants them to vote. In reality, we lose elections because this is a losing issue and we lose people that are in the middle. People who had previously leaned to the right are now going to lean to the left.

Coaston: I know you talk about it in terms of control. What does that mean to you?

Senn: In case you don’t know, South Carolina — only West Virginia had fewer female representation. Now, we did pick up one female senator, but when we were voting on the ban, we only had 14.7 percent female representation.

(South Carolina is technically now 48th in terms of state legislature representation for women ahead of Mississippi as well as West Virginia; both states have banned abortion with very limited exceptions, while South Carolina has implemented the six-week ban.)

Coaston: Especially when we’re thinking about Republicans, and your belief that the party understands that they’re in the hot seat on abortion, it’s interesting the way you talk about the impetus being to control women.

Senn: There are a lot more women in politics now or trying to be, and a lot more professional women who are educated. But these men are educated as well, and they know better. Their wives are screaming at them. So even when it came to having peace at home versus worrying about that job at the Statehouse, they selected that job at the Statehouse. So those are the ones that disappoint me greatly.

For those who really believe it as a religious issue — and those are generally nonlawyers who cannot seem to understand a separation between church and state or even a separation of powers — for them, I’m not as, I guess, mad, because it’s truly their belief.

We don’t want women to have abortions, but we have to have some sympathy, and we can’t judge. We have to give them a certain amount of time to get their lives together. And if we give them a certain amount of time, a lot of times they are going to select life. And those who can’t just simply can’t. But it should not be a bunch of old men in the South Carolina Legislature deciding their fate. And I mean “old men,” because there are a lot of them.

Coaston: How do you think Republicans should have responded to this moment? Dobbs sends the issue back to the states. How do you wish Republicans would’ve come at this?

Senn: I think Justice Roberts got it right. If they wanted to reverse that one particular case, they should have. But even Justice Roberts went ahead and voted with the majority. So I think that I stood, and still stand, at first trimester for a limit. My sister senators, some of them, they say longer. They’re more in line with how Ohio just voted.

(The “sister senators” who filibustered to block South Carolina’s near total ban on abortion are Margie Bright Matthews, a Democrat; Mia McLeod, an independent; and Katrina Shealy, Penry Gustafson and Ms. Senn, who are Republicans.)

But yet I’m getting accused of, and the Republican women are getting accused of, we’re just not “Republican enough.” And I’m like, “Are you serious? We’re at 12 weeks.” Even Tim Scott, who just dropped out of the presidential race, he was at, what was it, 17? At one point, it was 19, and then he backtracked to 17. Even Nikki Haley is softening up on this thing. So if they don’t see it as a loser issue, I’d be shocked.

(Mr. Scott supported a federal abortion ban after 20 weeks of pregnancy, then scaled that back to a ban after 15 weeks, while also stating his support for South Carolina’s six-week ban. Ms. Haley has said that Americans need to reach “consensus” on abortion and that it is an issue for states to decide.)

Coaston: You mentioned that many Americans would describe themselves as pro-life and yet are uncomfortable with government restrictions on moral decisions. Do you think that that’s more accurate, or do you think more that it’s people who hadn’t really thought about what an abortion law would look like before it was actually on the table?

Senn: So many people had been voting all of their adult life like me, before there was any controversy over this whole thing. But it wasn’t until ’76 that it ever even made the Republican Party platform. And this is something that a lot of people overlook. Even then, it was placed on the platform over the objection of 28 female delegates who were there, and they only sat down and didn’t pipe up about it because they were told that they were risking the Equal Rights Amendment. The party had already started having some erosion with respect to its support of the Equal Rights Amendment. And yet we still never got that.

Coaston: During the filibuster, I assume you heard a lot from pro-life activists within the G.O.P. What were the most compelling and least compelling arguments that you heard?

Senn: Like I said, the ones who want to stand up there and act like they’re at a pulpit, for those of us who are legally trained or have really just some common understanding of the separation of church and state, I do not believe that was very effective. But as far as, I guess, the most powerful thing they had, it wasn’t anything that came out their mouths. It was the sheer number of votes they had.

We are just overwhelmingly Republican in South Carolina, almost a supermajority. We do have a supermajority in the House, very close to a supermajority in the Senate. And because they did not have a supermajority, especially when the five of us joined the Dems and a couple of other Republican men who helped us, at least initially, that’s the only thing that stopped the total ban. Their goal is going to be: get rid of the three Republican women.

Coaston: You said that you support a limit at the first trimester, with exceptions. Do you think that’s the right approach generally on policy, or is that more what you think would work in South Carolina?

Senn: No, no. What I support really is to put it to the voters. I want to make sure you understand that. That needs to be very clear. If somebody just goes to for what I say, first trimester, well, then we’re going to have an argument there. That’s when then even the women are going to disagree. We all believe that this is something that you’re never going to get total agreement on. It’s best to put it to the voters. But because our state is so old, one of the original 13, our Constitution does not even have voter-driven initiatives. So it would still take a supermajority of both parties to put the abortion issue on a referendum, and that will never happen.

What we did, and what I think is just common sense, is, we sat down, and we’re like, “Let’s throw out the extremes.” And we felt like a total ban on abortion was extreme, and then to have an abortion after viability was certainly extreme, and we all agreed there. Then we, all the women, just said, “We believe we’re in the reasonable middle.” So somewhere from zero to 22 weeks — although I stood at 12 weeks. We were not going to let that get in the way of our agreement though, because we again are in search of a solution and not just for this to be a never-ending battle.

Coaston: You mentioned Senator Scott; there’s also the former governor Nikki Haley, both of South Carolina. How do you think they have talked about abortion in the presidential primary?

Senn: Well, I’ve watched them ease up on their stances, every single candidate really, except perhaps Ron DeSantis. Personally, I even contacted Governor Haley — or I guess “Ambassador” is what everybody’s calling her now — and just told her that I felt as though my discussions about this whole issue became much easier when I just took a stance. If you don’t take a stance, then you’re wishy-washy.

Now she’s backing off some of this “Just bring me anything and I’ll sign it.” I think any potential president is going to need to be a little more direct than that. But I appreciate the fact that she is — I think, and I don’t know this because I haven’t asked her in a long time — that she must realize that this is not a winning issue for Republicans. It just isn’t. I would say she is pro-life personally — but you’d have to ask her. From things I’ve heard and seen her do over many, many years, I think that she is. But she also understands that leaders don’t … everybody doesn’t agree with their position or with their religion or whatever it is, so why not let the people decide, or get somewhere in the reasonable middle?

Coaston: What should Republican candidates and officeholders think about before Election Day next year?

Senn: Well, I don’t think there are that many of them that consider abortion a single issue. A lot of women would, but not necessarily all people. You’ve got to think, so many voters, they’re well out of childbearing years. They may agree with us on it. I think they’re tired of it, really. And I think what they want to hear is that the issue is put to bed, but I can tell you the Freedom Caucus is already going to try and come back again next year, because they want to take it back to total ban.

Most definitely, they’re hoping that the five of us are not there in the South Carolina Senate anymore because then they will get a total ban in the state. And so then it will take some type of federal intervention. Or what’s going to happen, and this is what I argue to them over and over again, women are not just going to go back to the way things were in the ’40s, ’50s. That’s just not going to happen. And what’s going to happen is they’re going to get those abortion pills, and they’re going to be counterfeit, and I just hope to goodness people don’t die from it.

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