South Carolina’s new law banning most abortions was suspended by a federal judge on Friday on its second day in effect.
Judge Mary Geiger Lewis put a 14-day temporary restraining order on the law and will renew it until she can hold a more substantial hearing on March 9 to decide whether to keep it from being enforced until Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit against South Carolina is finished.
Governor Henry McMaster signed the bill into law on Thursday, less than an hour after it was sent to him, but the national reproductive health services organisation sued even before the governor put ink to paper.
The temporary restraining order was needed in part because more than 75 women are scheduled to have abortions in the state over the next three days, and most of them would be banned under the new law, Planned Parenthood and The Center for Reproductive Rights said in court papers.
BREAKING: A judge has temporarily blocked SC's 6-week abortion ban from taking effect.
— PP South Atlantic SC (@PPSATSC) February 19, 2021
The “South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act” is similar to abortion restriction laws that a dozen states have previously passed. All were stopped from taking effect and currently are tied up in court. Federal law, which takes precedence over state law, currently allows abortion.
Planned Parenthood’s lawyers said South Carolina is “openly flouting this law”.
The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office said in court papers filed on Friday morning that Planned Parenthood cannot be sure the law will be rejected by the US Supreme Court. With three justices appointed by Republican former President Donald Trump, they said, the court could overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision supporting abortion rights.
Abortion opponents celebrated in the State House lobby outside the House chambers as members gave the bill final approval on Thursday. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they sang “Praise God” to the tune of “Amazing Grace” after the Republican governor held up the new law so they could see his signature, signed with eight different pens. The Republican Party tried for years to pass the ban, finally succeeding after the party flipped three Senate seats in 2020.
The law requires doctors to perform ultrasounds to check for a heartbeat in the foetus, which can typically be detected about six weeks after conception. If one is detected, the abortion can only be performed if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest or the mother’s life is in danger.
Opponents of the ban said many women do not know they are pregnant by then, especially if they are not trying to conceive. And with such an early deadline, the law gives women little time to consider whether to have an abortion.
“The act would force patients to race to a health center for an abortion, even if they did not yet feel confident in their decision,” Katherine Farris, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, wrote in court papers.
South Carolina has three clinics that provide abortions in its largest metropolitan areas – Charleston, Columbia and Greenville – and none of them perform abortions after the first trimester. Two of them perform abortions only twice a week, according to Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit.
The suit says a high rate of women, especially Black Americans, die during or immediately after childbirth in South Carolina and the abortion ban would fall hardest on low-income women, who would not be able to travel to a nearby state where abortion is still permitted.
The US Supreme Court has struck down state laws that prevent abortions before a foetus can live outside the womb.
Lawyers for the state are making a different argument: that a heartbeat in a foetus is an important milestone in a pregnancy. They cite the new law, which states that “contemporary medical research” has found “fewer than 5 percent of all natural pregnancies end in spontaneous miscarriage after the detection of a fetal heartbeat”.
The new law does not punish a pregnant woman for getting an illegal abortion, but the person who performs the procedure can be charged with a felony, sentenced up to two years and fined $10,000 if found guilty.