Abortion providers file lawsuit to block SC abortion ban, calling law an ‘attack’

Emily Bohatch
·6 min read

Less than an hour after South Carolina passed a restrictive “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban bill, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and the Greenville Women’s Clinic filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the bill from going into effect.

News of the lawsuit broke shortly before the governor’s Thursday press conference to sign the bill into law, banning most abortions after a heartbeat is detectable in an ultrasound.

In the lawsuit, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Greenville Women’s Clinic ask the court to issue a temporary restraining order and an injunction, which would stop the law from being enforced. The groups said that the law, which went into effect Thursday afternoon, would stop at least 75 abortions that were scheduled for the next 72 hours.

The case will receive its first court hearing in Columbia’s federal courthouse Friday at 1 p.m.

In the complaint, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Greenville Women’s Clinic call the “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban “South Carolina’s latest attempt to prevent patients from exercising their constitutional right to abortion.”

“The Act is an affront to the dignity and health of South Carolinians. In particular, it is an attack on families with low incomes, South Carolinians of color, and rural South Carolinians, who already face inequities in access to medical care and who will bear the brunt of the law’s cruelties,” the complaint reads.

The groups filing the lawsuit are represented by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Columbia-based law firm Burnette Shutt & McDaniel.

After news of the lawsuit broke, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, issued a very brief statement.

“My office will vigorously defend this law in court because there is nothing more important than protecting life,” Wilson said in the statement.

The law, S. 1, passed the S.C. House at about 10:45 a.m. Thursday, just five weeks into the legislative session. The bill will be the second signed into law by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster this year.

The newly minted law would require doctors to perform an ultrasound to detect a fetal heartbeat before performing any abortion. If a heartbeat is detected, the doctor would be prohibited from performing an abortion unless one is necessary to prevent the woman’s death or severe impairment, the fetus has a detectable anomaly that is not compatible with life or the woman reports being the victim of rape or incest. If she tells a doctor that she was the victim of rape or incest, the doctor would then be required to report the crime to the local sheriff.

Critics of the bill argue that the bill does not give women enough time to get an abortion. A fetal heartbeat can be detected around six weeks. In the lawsuit, the groups argue that some women commonly miss their periods, something that would typically be the first sign someone is pregnant, and at home pregnancy tests are not generally effective until at least four weeks of gestation.

The lawsuit also argues that it can take time for women to gather the resources they need before heading to the few abortion providers across the state. Those who live in poverty may have to save up money to get the procedure and may not be able to afford childcare while they travel to a provider, the lawsuit argues.

“Most of our patients don’t even know they’re pregnant until after six weeks,” the Greenville Women’s Clinic wrote in a statement. “That means this law would act as a total abortion ban for most people in South Carolina. Even for patients who find out before six weeks, they often must take time to save up funds, request time off of work, and find child care for their kids if they are a parent.”

During the last few years, abortions performed after six weeks of probable fertilization in South Carolina made up about 55% of all abortions performed in the state, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Of the 5,101 abortions performed in 2019 in the state, 2,323 were performed at six weeks of gestation or earlier.

In the lawsuit, the abortion providers say that the vast majority of abortions performed in the state are performed after six weeks after the woman’s last menstrual period, a different measure than what is used by DHEC to track abortions. Of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic’s patients, only about 4% receive abortions before six weeks after their last menstrual period, according to the lawsuit.

“Important health care decisions should be made by individuals in consultation with their trusted medical providers and their families, not politicians. 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,” said Dr. Katherine Farris, Chief Medical Officer for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, in a statement.

South Carolina joins 10 other states that have passed abortion bans either at six weeks or earlier in the pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion legislation and laws across the United States. Every state that has passed similar legislation to S. 1 faced court injunctions.

Opponents of the “fetal heartbeat” legislation argue that it’s unconstitutional under the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which they say protects a woman’s right to have an abortion up until fetal viability. Anti-abortion advocates hope, though, that “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban bills can be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the newly conservative court, with three members appointed by former President Donald Trump, could overturn the standing court decision.

Alongside the bill’s constitutionality, critics have questioned why South Carolina lawmakers would choose to prioritize it, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The bill was the second signed into law by the governor this session.

“If South Carolina politicians truly cared about the quality of life for women and children, they would get to work to expedite the vaccine rollout, expand Medicaid, and address the dangerously high rates of maternal mortality and infant mortality in the state,” said Jenny Black, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, in a statement.

“South Carolina maintains some of the starkest health disparities in the country, with Black women dying at four times the rate of white women after they have given birth. 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. We will never back down from this fight.”