US court strikes down South Carolina abortion ban | Women’s Rights News
A court in the southeastern United States has overturned South Carolina’s so-called “Fetal Heartbeat” law, which bans abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy.
The South Carolina Supreme Court issued its decision Thursday, calling the ban an “unreasonable restriction” that “violates a woman’s constitutional right to privacy.”
The law was overturned in a narrow vote of three to two, with a majority siding with the plaintiffs: two South Carolina doctors, a women’s hospital in the city of Greenville and the health care nonprofit Planned Parenthood.
“This is a monumental victory in the movement to protect legal abortion in the South,” the nonprofit’s South Atlantic branch said on Twitter. “We and our partners will continue our fight to block any bill that allows politicians to interfere in people’s decisions about private healthcare.”
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has blasted the decision as judicial hyperbole, saying the ruling went against the will of voters in the largely Red state.
“Our Supreme Court has established a right in our Constitution that was never intended by the people of South Carolina. With this statement, the court has clearly exceeded its competence,” he wrote on Twitter.
South Carolina’s Fetal Heartbeat and Abortion Protection Act originally passed in February 2021, with Republicans hailing the bill as a “huge victory” for those they consider “unborn” children.
“If this is upheld by the courts, we have saved thousands of lives in South Carolina every year,” said Shane Massey, the state Senate Majority Leader.
The law required patients seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound to determine what the law calls a “fetal heartbeat.” If such activity was detected, the abortion could not proceed, except in cases of rape, incest, or threatening the life of the parent.
However, doctors and abortion rights advocates have disputed terms such as “fetal heartbeat,” stating that the flicker detected on ultrasound in the first few weeks of pregnancy is not a heartbeat but rather electrical activity in cells that eventually become heart tissue.
They also point out that the electrical impulses can be detected as early as six weeks before many people realize they are pregnant. That reasoning was raised in Thursday’s decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
“Six weeks is simply not a reasonable period,” the court majority wrote in its opinion, citing the time it takes for a parent to realize they are pregnant and to take action to obtain an abortion. She described the ban as an “unreasonable invasion of privacy”.
But the verdict was close. Majority opinion implied that the state could still restrict access to abortion provided it was protected by the state’s right to privacy.
“The state undoubtedly has the power to restrict the right to privacy, which protects women from state interference in their choices,” the ruling said.
South Carolina maintains a separate 20-week abortion ban, a state law that predates the fetal heartbeat law.
The six-week ban initially faced a series of legal challenges after it was signed into law in 2021 by Gov. McMaster, who predicted defending the legislation would be “an uphill battle”. A judge suspended the ban on the second day of its existence.
States like Georgia, Ohio, and Iowa have also attempted to enact their own “fetal heartbeat” laws, but they too face legal challenges. In November, the Georgia Supreme Court voted to reinstate its “fetal heartbeat” law while considering a lower court ruling overturning the ban, leading some proponents to call the matter “legal ping-pong.”
Republican support for such bans prompted attorneys general from 21 states — including Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Montana and Texas — to file an amicus brief in support of South Carolina’s law in March 2022.
But the landscape for abortion access in the U.S. changed in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to overturn the landmark precedent in the 1973 Roe v Wade case, effectively ending the federal constitutional right to abortion access.
The US Supreme Court decision – in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – put the issue of abortion rights back in state hands.
A few days after the Dobbs ruling, on June 27 last year, South Carolina’s six-week ban went back into effect.
“After Roe v Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court,” prosecutor Alan Wilson said at the time, “there was no longer any basis for blocking South Carolina’s heartbeat statute.”
The South Atlantic chapter of Planned Parenthood filed its lawsuit the following month, arguing the ban violated the state constitution. However, South Carolina state attorneys have argued that the right to privacy is intended to protect against illegal “search and seizure” and does not apply to abortions.
The South Carolina Supreme Court is considered the first court to make a final decision on the constitutionality of abortion under state law in the months following the Dobbs decision.
As such, Thursday’s decision drew national attention, including from the administration of US President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
“We are heartened by today’s ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court on the state’s extreme and dangerous abortion ban,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wrote on Twitter. “Women should be able to make their own decisions about their bodies.”
But US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican representing South Carolina, denounced the decision as “judicial activism.” He has previously advocated a nationwide 15-week abortion ban.
“I have a hard time believing that the drafters of the South Carolina Constitution intended to prevent elected officials from passing laws protecting the unborn child,” he wrote Thursday.