A federal judge has temporarily blocked South Carolina’s heartbeat-based abortion ban just days after its passage, in response to court filings from Planned Parenthood. However, the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office has argued that Planned Parenthood can’t be sure the U.S. Supreme Court will reject the law.
Lawyers for Planned Parenthood said the state is “openly flouting” federal precedent allowing abortion.
In court papers filed Feb. 19, the state attorney general’s office cited the three justices appointed to the Supreme Court under President Donald Trump as reason to believe the court could overturn Roe v. Wade and other precedents mandating legal abortion nationwide.
“My office will vigorously defend this law in court because there is nothing more important than protecting life,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said Feb. 18.
Judge Mary Geiger Lewis placed a 14-day temporary restraining order on the law Feb. 19, an order that is renewable until a more substantial hearing on March 9, the Associated Press said.
She said it was not her role to determine whether the Supreme Court would change abortion precedent. Rather, she must follow current precedent, and the state’s new law is more strict than this precedent.
Gov. Henry McMaster had signed the bill Feb. 18, calling it “a major step forward in the pro-life movement here in South Carolina.”
The Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act restricts abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, as early as six weeks into pregnancy. It requires doctors to check for a heartbeat before an abortion. Exemptions would allow abortions in cases where the child was conceived in rape or incest or where the mother’s life is in danger.
The state currently bans abortion after 20 weeks into pregnancy.
If the heartbeat-based abortion ban survives legal challenge, doctors who are found guilty of violating the law could face a felony charge, up to two years in prison, and fines of up to $10,000.
Women seeking abortions would not be subject to criminal prosecution.
The Diocese of Charleston supported the legislation.
The director of the state’s Catholic Conference, Michael Acquilano, called the passage of the bill “a historic day for the pro-life movement in South Carolina,” according to The Catholic Miscellany.
The Catholic conference drafted a sample message for voters to send to legislators in support of the bill. The message said that, given changes at the supreme Court, “it is our sincere hope that the legislation will withstand constitutional challenge and be implemented in order to save innocent, unborn babies' lives when a heartbeat is present.”
“As we know, abortion stops a beating heart,” the message continued.
In court papers seeking a restraining order on the law, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights said more than 75 women were scheduled to have abortions in the state over the next three days.
Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville each have abortion clinics, none of which perform abortion after the first trimester. Two of the clinics perform abortion twice a week.
Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit said the abortion ban would hurt low-income women the hardest as they could not travel to a nearby state with more lax abortion laws.
Critics of the law have objected that many women don’t know they are pregnant six weeks into pregnancy, and the law doesn’t give them time to consider an abortion.
Other states have passed “heartbeat” abortion bans, including Georgia, Missouri, Louisiana, Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Dakota. However, they have not prevailed in court.
In other states, pro-abortion legislators have acted to strengthen legal abortion at the state level in case federal precedent on legal abortion is changed or overturned.
A heartbeat-based abortion ban had passed South Carolina’s House of Representatives several times in previous years, but the legislation lacked the votes to overcome a procedural vote in the Senate, the Associated Press reports. After Republican candidates won three more Senate seats in the 2020 elections, their party held a 30-16 advantage.
Sen. Sandy Senn of Charleston was the only Senate Republican to vote against the bill.
The House passed the legislation by a 79-35 vote Feb. 17.
During legislative debate over the bill that day, Democrats walked out of the state House chamber in protest.
However, two South Carolina House Democrats voted in favor of the bill, including Rep. Russell Ott.
“I feel like I need to continue to be consistent,” Ott told CNA Feb. 17. “An unborn child is still a human being,” he said, adding that “I can’t separate myself from that.”
Ott said the life issue “has always been an internal struggle for me.” He emphasized other needs including education reform, the lack of affordable quality food in areas known as “food deserts,” and the lack of broadband access in rural areas.
Acquilano said litigation was expected.
“However, the battle to preserve life must include the courts in our system of government. We welcome litigation to continue to build a culture of life,” he said, according to The Catholic Miscellany.