South Carolina is facing mounting opposition after passing a new bill that aims to prohibit abortions at heartbeat. The bill, and those like it in other states, essentially outlaws all abortions and is likely to be overturned in court.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic filed suit against the Palmetto State, calling into question the constitutionality of its newest abortion legislation just one day after the governor signed it into law on Feb. 18.
The controversial law, the South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act, bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected through ultrasound. Exemptions are made if the pregnancy is the result of rape and/or incest, there are fetal anomalies or there is danger to the mother’s life.
U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis granted a 14-day temporary restraining order ensuring the law will not take effect for 14 days, and she is expected to renew the restraining order before a March 9 preliminary injunction hearing. Attorney General Alan Wilson has vowed to “vigorously defend” the new law, and signaled the legal battle may continue for the foreseeable future.
“There is nothing more important than protecting life,” he said in a statement.
Rising tide of heartbeat bills
Critics of the law are roiled because they believe it poses a “serious threat to South Carolinians’ health and bodily autonomy.” The law restricts almost all abortions at the earliest stages of pregnancy, as fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks. Under the law, patients would be forced to carry the pregnancy to term or travel to another state to obtain constitutionally protected abortion care.
Heartbeat bills have become a new obstacle for women’s healthcare rights in the last few years as numerous states have pushed through these types of laws. However, these attempts to restrict abortion access are typically overturned in court fights since they violate federal law under Roe v. Wade. While the laws don’t stick long term, they are emblematic of the ongoing and escalating fight against women’s healthcare rights and access to comprehensive reproductive care.
Heartbeat bills also often serve as a red herring for other forms of restrictions to abortion care services to get approved and signed into law, such as restrictions on certain types of common abortion services. For example, this incremental approach has been successful in Ohio, where a 20-week abortion ban was put into law after a heartbeat bill was passed and then overturned.
“Important healthcare decisions should be made by individuals in consultation with their trusted medical providers and their families, not politicians,” Katherine Farris, MD, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said in a statement. “Abortion is a critical component of comprehensive reproductive health care, and everyone deserves to have access to the health care they need, without politicians controlling when, how or why.”
Aside from the state-level legal fight, the bill can only be enforced if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which constitutionally protects a woman’s right to abortion. A handful of states have taken aim at the federal law with heartbeat legislation, and the pace of these bills at the state level has accelerated in recent years because of the current makeup of the conservative-leaning Supreme Court.
So far in 2021, lawmakers have introduced, moved or passed a staggering 150 bills focused on reproductive reproductive rights and abortion access, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. This trajectory could continue for the foreseeable future.
Pro-choice advocates push back
Sheriff Kristin Graziano of the Charleston-area took to Twitter to blast the controversial law after it was amended to include that a woman must report a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest to the Sheriff’s department before getting the abortion.
“This is absolute insanity to re-victimize the victim,” Graziano wrote on Twitter. “Sheriffs should not be policing a woman's body, religious beliefs, or personal health decisions.”
Under the new law, a pregnant woman would not be penalized for getting an illegal abortion in South Carolina, but the healthcare provider who performs the abortion could face jail time and a $10,000 fine, if upheld by state- and federal-level courts.
“Governor McMaster’s commitment to strip South Carolinians of their fundamental freedoms and willingness to threaten doctors who provide abortion care with prison time is as cruel as it is unconstitutional,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement. “Every South Carolinian should have the freedom to make their own decisions about their families and their futures.”
For now, South Carolinian women in need of an abortion can still access abortion care. In spite of the uphill battle for reproductive rights, pro-choice groups and providers are dedicated to providing care for women who want an abortion.
“Planned Parenthood South Atlantic remains committed to keeping our doors open for our patients and ensuring abortion is safe, legal, and accessible in South Carolina,” Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said in a statement. “We will never back down from this fight.”