GREENVILLE, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed a newly minted six-week abortion ban Thursday behind closed doors, triggering a new battle for abortion access in the state as the U.S. South faces a wave of severe restrictions to the care.
The state’s new ban prohibits abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, which the law says is when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. The ban will go into effect immediately.
“With my signature, the Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act is now law and will begin saving the lives of unborn children immediately,” McMaster, a Republican, said in a news release. “This is a great day for life in South Carolina, but the fight is not over. We stand ready to defend this legislation against any challenges and are confident we will succeed. The right to life must be preserved, and we will do everything we can to protect it.”
Media was not invited and only a couple of lawmakers stood around McMaster as he finalized the bill’s passage. Hours after the law came into effect, doctors associated with Planned Parenthood, Greenville Women’s Clinic and Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit in state court.
South Carolina joins a growing number of states limiting abortion care. Since last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe V. Wade, states across the South have seen a sweep of abortion restrictions introduced and approved by Republican lawmakers.
Abortion bans throughout pregnancy have already been passed in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. In Georgia, it’s allowed only in the first six weeks.
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South Carolina faces immediate legal challenges
Challengers to South Carolina’s law said it is identical to the 2021 Fetal Heartbeat law, which was thrown out by the South Carolina Supreme Court in January. The majority ruling, authored by former Justice Kaye Hearn—the only woman on the bench, ruled that the state had violated privacy rights enshrined in the state constitution.
The South Carolina Supreme Court’s lead opinion said the 2021 ban was an “unreasonable restriction upon a woman’s right to privacy.”
But a few things have changed since the January ruling. Earlier this year, lawmakers stunned by the state supreme court ruling voted to elect Greenville Judge Gary Hill to replace Hearn. For the first time in over two decades, the High Court has no woman on the bench.
“The Act is an affront to the dignity and health of South Carolinians. Decisions related to having a family are some of the most personal that South Carolinians will ever make,” the lawsuit filing said. “Pregnancy itself is physically, emotionally, and financially challenging, and having a child is an enormous, life-altering decision. There are myriad factors that go into whether and when to have or add to a family.”
The lawsuit argues that the ban is unconstitutional under the state’s constitution and violates “its guarantees to privacy, equal protection, and due process.”
Before it reaches the High Court, lower courts will consider whether provisions in the state law violate the privacy rights of sexual assault survivors. Lower courts will also consider if the mandated disclosure of their personal information to law enforcement violates the Medicaid Act and whether a law that was settled in January remains settled.
Exceptions to the state’s new ban include medical emergencies, if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and for certain fetal diagnoses.
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Abortion care in the South
The Center for Reproductive Rights called South Carolina a “key access state” for abortion care. According to the advocacy group, the state has provided the care for in-state residents and patients from states such as Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.
“Access to abortion care is increasingly precarious in the South, and it is crucial that we protect it in South Carolina,” said Caroline Sacerdote, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement. “Just four months ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court did just that. We’re simply asking the court to follow that precedent here.”
Jenny Black, the president of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, told the Associated Press that abortion providers have had to quickly determine how to comply with the pending laws amid the “decimation of abortion access across the South.”
Black said new restrictions will only further put stress on providers who have been seeing an influx of patients from states with restrictions.
In a report released in early April by the Society of Family Planning, states where abortion care had remained largely legal saw an increase in abortions. Florida and North Carolina were among the states with the biggest increases, which now have pending limitations.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Devyani Chhetri covers the South Carolina State House and is a watchdog SC government reporter. You can reach her at [email protected] or @ChhetriDevyani.