With six-week abortion ban blocked for now, what comes next?

Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 8:20 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2022 at 8:30 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The South Carolina Supreme Court’s order Wednesday that blocks the enforcement of the state’s six-week ban on abortion, for now, has set off a ripple effect of actions and questions about what comes next.

The temporary injunction, issued through a unanimous vote of justices, comes in response to a lawsuit filed in state court in July by Planned Parenthood, Greenville Women’s Clinic, and abortion-providing physicians.

Plaintiffs claim the “Fetal Heartbeat Law” violates rights in the state constitution to equal protection and privacy.

“That’s where privacy begins is with your body, and so we feel confident in that argument,” Vicki Ringer of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic said. “Other states that have that in their constitution, their courts have upheld their right to abortion as a result, and so we think it would be hard for anyone to disagree with that right to privacy.”

South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, speaking with reporters Thursday for the first time since the Supreme Court’s order, said he does not believe that is what was meant when that part of the constitution was passed.

“When that provision was put into the constitution, that was in the context of eavesdropping and electric surveillance, and things of that nature,” McMaster said.

McMaster signed the “Fetal Heartbeat Act” into law in Feb. 2021, but it had been blocked in federal court for more than a year until shortly after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

It bans most abortions once cardiac activity is detected, typically around six weeks, while allowing exceptions in cases of rape, incest, life and health of the mother, and fetal anomalies, but the temporary injunction currently on the law means abortions are again legal in South Carolina before 20 weeks.

Planned Parenthood is looking to resume providing first-trimester abortions at its South Carolina clinics this weekend, Ringer said, adding second-trimester abortions before the 20-week mark must be provided at hospitals.

“We have already started reaching out to staff and scheduling them for longer hours and contacting the patients who we have already seen and who have appointments in North Carolina to see if they want to stay here,” Ringer said.

The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office noted while the state Supreme Court has temporarily blocked the six-week ban, the court has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of the law.

Based on a schedule the Supreme Court outlined in the temporary injunction order, Ringer said they believe a hearing on the six-week ban could happen as early as late September, though a date has not yet been announced.

Meanwhile, the state legislature is in the process of debating new abortion legislation that would eliminate access to the procedure except in very limited circumstances.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill for consideration before the full House of Representatives on Tuesday that would permit abortions only to save the life and health of the mother in situations like ectopic pregnancies, severe pre-eclampsia, and miscarriages. However, amendments are certain to be proposed during floor debate that would add exceptions for pregnancies that result from sexual assault.

That legislation now awaits a debate on the House floor, and a spokeswoman for House Speaker Murrell Smith, R – Sumter, said as of Thursday, the House still plans to convene on Aug. 30.

McMaster was asked Thursday if he believes the General Assembly should slow down the process of deliberating a new law until after the state Supreme Court rules on the current law.

“That may be the impact of it. It may not be,” he said. “But I know that I’m encouraging and have been encouraged by the deliberate careful steps that have been made in the legislature and by those both supporting and opposing what has been proposed.”

Senators have said they plan to return to Columbia the first week of September to take up legislation passed in the House.

Ringer said she remains cautiously optimistic about what will happen in both the courthouse and the State House.

“And hope that the women of this state feel supported by the lawmakers and the judges who make decisions about their lives every day,” she said.