What Supreme Court ruling means for SC’s Fetal Heartbeat Law

Published: Jun. 24, 2022 at 8:51 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 25, 2022 at 7:47 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The US Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday stripping the constitutionally guaranteed right to access abortions nationwide opens the door for state legislatures to impose tighter restrictions and even total bans on the procedure, with South Carolina’s among them.

In a 6-3 vote, the justices overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which had protected abortion access for nearly 50 years. While bans on abortion immediately went into effect upon the decision in some states, with more prohibitions coming soon in others, South Carolina’s General Assembly is expected to return to Columbia in the coming months for a special session to change state law.

South Carolina already has a restrictive law on the books, the Fetal Heartbeat Law, which bans abortions once a heartbeat is detected, typically around six weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

However, courts have blocked it from being enforced because of the Roe precedent since right after Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed it last year, and the law remains blocked as of Friday.

South Carolina’s Republican leaders, including McMaster, Attorney General Alan Wilson, and Speaker of the House Murrell Smith of Sumter, filed an emergency motion Friday, following the high court’s decision, to allow South Carolina to start enforcing the Fetal Heartbeat Law as soon as possible.

A judge gave the plaintiffs in that case, including Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, until Monday at 9 a.m. to respond.

“It’s important to remember that this ruling does not outlaw abortion nationwide, it simply allows the people of each state to decide. This office will continue to defend any law the General Assembly enacts in response to this decision,” Wilson said in a statement, in part. “This ruling is a victory for life, the rule of law, and local decision-making. Human life is the most precious thing we have and our Founders sought to protect life, not destroy it.”

McMaster has previously voiced support for a statewide ban on abortion, without exceptions for rape or incest. He said in a statement following the Dobbs decision that he would “immediately begin working with members of the General Assembly to determine the best solution for protecting the lives of unborn South Carolinians.”

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a resounding victory for the Constitution and for those who have worked for so many years to protect the lives of the most vulnerable among us,” McMaster wrote.

Even before the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision came down, overturning Roe, the groundwork to change South Carolina law had already been laid at the State House, following a leaked draft opinion reported by POLITICO in early May that foretold what was to come from the high court regarding Dobbs.

While the South Carolina General Assembly ended its 2022 regular legislative session in mid-May, it passed a resolution before adjourning that outlines the reasons for which lawmakers could return to Columbia. Among them, members could be called back to the State House to respond to a Dobbs ruling.

After that, Smith, in one of his first acts as the new House Speaker, established an ad hoc committee that will take public testimony and guide the House’s legislative response to a ruling.

“We’re ready to go. We’ll probably get started on this in the next week or so,” Rep. John McCravy, R – Greenwood, said Friday.

McCravy is heading up the panel, which Smith tasked with writing up the details on H.5399, a placeholder bill introduced in the House on the last day of the regular legislative session that would “prohibit abortions in the state of South Carolina,” but does not yet include any other specifics.

The 12-member committee is made up of eight Republicans — McCravy, House Majority Leader David Hiott of Pickens, Rep. Micah Caskey of Lexington, Rep. Heather Crawford of Horry, Rep. Jeff Johnson of Horry, Rep. Josiah Magnuson of Spartanburg, Rep. Travis Moore of Spartanburg, and Rep. Melissa Oremus of Aiken — and four Democrats — Rep. Chandra Dillard of Greenville, Rep. Jackie “Coach” Hayes of Dillon, Rep. Rosalyn Henderson-Myers of Spartanburg, and Rep. David Weeks of Sumter.

Seven of those members are also part of the State House’s conservative Family Caucus, which backs anti-abortion legislation, calling itself “unashamedly pro-life,” and of which McCravy is also the chair.

McCravy, who had been researching other states’ abortion measures even before the Dobbs decision came down, said the committee’s work will begin with public testimony.

While he favors a total ban on abortions, with exceptions only for the life of the mother, the question will be if there is enough support in the General Assembly to pass such a restrictive measure or if more exceptions would be needed to be included to muster a majority in both of the Republican-dominated chambers.

“It’s not going to depend on my opinion. It’s going to depend on the votes, and we hope they’re there for that. I do personally, but if they’re not, we’ll have to come up with the best law we can,” McCravy said. “It’s a feeling of freedom, you know, that our state can decide what’s best for us.”

Last year, one Republican senator, Sen. Sandy Senn of Charleston, voted against the Fetal Heartbeat Bill, and others said they would not support it unless exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother were included, which ultimately were.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, told reporters last month that his chamber would also take time to hear from the public before taking action on a response.

Rep. Beth Bernstein, D – Richland, believes there would be enough support in both chambers for a total ban, with no exceptions, and questions how that may impact access to other procedures in the future, such as in-vitro fertilization.

“It’s a sad day for all of our daughters and all of the young women and women of this country who have lost the ability to make decisions that pertain to their bodies,” she said.

Almost all Democrats in the General Assembly voted against the Fetal Heartbeat Bill last year, with Bernstein among them, who said a more restrictive ban would be “a travesty for the women of South Carolina.”

Bernstein said she believes this issue is one the state should stay out of legislating, though it seems unlikely the Republican-controlled General Assembly will.

“I will appeal to my moderate Republican colleagues to think about that when casting votes that are really going to take us back 50-plus years,” she said.

While lawmakers could be called back for a special session as early as July 1, members of both chambers do not expect that to happen until late summer or the fall.

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