Both sides say fight isn’t over after SC court strikes ‘fetal heartbeat bill’

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the state’s so-called “fetal heartbeat law” Thursday, ruling it violates the state’s constitutional right to privacy.
Published: Jan. 5, 2023 at 11:45 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 5, 2023 at 10:46 PM EST

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the state’s so-called “fetal heartbeat law” Thursday, ruling it violates the state’s constitutional right to privacy.

The law, officially titled the “South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat Protection From Abortion Act,” banned most abortions after around six weeks, allowing for limited exceptions at that point.

In the 3-2 decision, the court ruled the six-week ban violates the state’s constitutional right to privacy, finding that the right extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

Justice Kaye Hearn, the only woman on the six-person bench, penned the majority opinion, writing, “six weeks is, quite simply, not a reasonable period of time” for a woman to determine she is pregnant and “take reasonable steps to terminate that pregnancy.”

“The State unquestionably has the authority to limit the right of privacy that protects women from state interference with her decision, but any such limitation must be reasonable,” the ruling states.

The decision was celebrated as far up as the White House, with Press Secretary Karine Kean-Pierre posting a response Thursday afternoon on Twitter:

We are encouraged by South Carolina’s Supreme Court ruling today on the state’s extreme and dangerous abortion ban. Women should be able to make their own decisions about their bodies.

“We are thrilled, we’re relieved that the decision has been made and that it is decisively in favor of tossing out the six-week abortion ban and upholding the right to abortion in South Carolina,” Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network CEO Ann Warner said. “It’s a victory for all of us in South Carolina.”

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who signed the bill into law in February of 2021, released his response to the ruling on Twitter.

“Our State Supreme Court has found a right in our Constitution which was never intended by the people of South Carolina,” he said. “With this opinion, the Court has clearly exceeded its authority. The people have spoken through their elected representatives multiple times on this issue.”

McMaster said he would with with the General Assembly to “correct this error.”

Dave Wilson, the president of the Palmetto Family Council, called it a “really sad day in South Carolina.”

“When the South Carolina Supreme Court decides that South Carolina citizens don’t have equal rights under the law, that the right to privacy supersedes the right to life, I think we’ve got a problem with our state Supreme Court right now,” he said.

Hearn also wrote in the majority opinion that the state does have the authority to impose restrictions on abortion if they’re reasonable, saying the right to privacy is not absolute.

“The pro-life community across South Carolina is going to be working with members of the General Assembly over the next few weeks as they start moving into this new legislative session to be able to determine what can be done with the General Assembly that we have now,” Wilson said.

Attorney General Alan Wilson said his office would also be working with the governor and the state legislature to “review all available options.”

Abortion providers who challenged the legislation were also quick to respond to the ruling.

“The court’s decision means that our patients can continue to come to us, their trusted health care providers, to access abortion and other essential health services in South Carolina,” Planned Parenthood South Atlantic President and CEO Jenny Black said. “This is a monumental victory in the movement to protect legal abortion in the South. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and our partners will continue our fight to block any bill that allows politicians to interfere in people’s private health care decisions.”

Center for Reproductive Rights President and CEO Nancy Northup said the court “justly rejected this insidious attempt to take away South Carolinians’ fundamental rights under the state’s constitution.”

“These radical bans have wreaked havoc across the South and Midwest, but today’s decision means that the right to make deeply personal health care decisions will remain protected in South Carolina — an immense victory for South Carolinians and the entire region,” Northup said. “We know that lawmakers will double down on their relentless efforts to restrict essential health care, but we will continue to use every tool at our disposal to restore abortion access across the country once and for all.”

But those pushing for expanded abortion access say their work isn’t over, either.

“We’ve already seen multiple bans pre-filed, and we have been ready to fight those and we will be ready to fight those,” Warner said.

The court originally heard arguments on Oct. 19, 2021, from abortion providers who argued the bill violated the state constitution.

The bill was signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster in February 2021 but was blocked from being enforced since right after McMaster signed it.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, a federal judge lifted the ban allowing South Carolina’s bill to take effect a few days later.

On July 13, 2022, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, Greenville Women’s Clinic, and two physicians filed a new lawsuit asking the state trial court to block the ban for violating South Carolinaians’ constitutional rights to privacy and equal protection by banning abortion, by providing inadequate protections for patients’ health and by conditioning sexual assault survivors’ access to abortion on the disclosure of their personal information to law enforcement.

The Court, on Aug. 17, 2022, issued a temporary injunction to block the law at the request of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Greenville Women’s Clinic ahead of hearing the October arguments.

The full text of the ruling can be read below:

Lawmakers will be back at the State House on Tuesday to begin their legislative session.

In the meantime, Thursday’s ruling means abortion remains legal in South Carolina before 20 weeks into a pregnancy.