A court in the southeastern United States has invalidated South Carolina’s so-called “fetal heartbeat” statute, which prohibits abortions as early as six weeks after conception.
As per Al Jazeera, on Thursday, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the ban is a “unreasonable restriction” that “violates a woman’s constitutional right to privacy.” The statute was overturned by a vote of three to two, with the majority siding with the plaintiffs: two South Carolina physicians, a women’s clinic in Greenville, and the non-profit healthcare organization Planned Parenthood.
“This is a significant success for the struggle to safeguard legal abortion in the South,” the South Atlantic section of the organization wrote on Twitter. Together with our allies, we will continue to oppose any legislation that would allow government to interfere with private health care decisions.
Henry McMaster, the Republican governor of South Carolina, denounced the judgment as judicial overreach, arguing that it ran counter to the will of voters in the predominantly red state. “Our State Supreme Court has discovered a right in our Constitution that the people of South Carolina never intended.” The Court has plainly exceeded its authority with this ruling,” he remarked on Twitter.
The Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act of South Carolina was initially passed in February 2021, with Republicans celebrating it as a “tremendous victory” for those they consider “unborn” children. “If the courts uphold this, we will have saved thousands of lives annually in South Carolina,” said Shane Massey, majority leader of the state Senate.
The measure compelled women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound to detect the “fetal heartbeat,” as defined by the law. If such behavior was identified, the abortion could not proceed, except in circumstances of rape, incest, or life-threatening danger to the mother.
However, clinicians and pro-abortion rights campaigners have contested phrases such as “fetal heartbeat,” arguing that the flickers detected in ultrasounds during the first few weeks of pregnancy are not heartbeats but rather electrical activity in cells that would later form cardiac tissue.
In addition, they note that the electrical pulses can be identified as early as six weeks, before the majority of women realize they are pregnant. Thursday’s judgment by the South Carolina Supreme Court cited this justification.
“Six weeks is not a reasonable period of time,” the majority of the court ruled in its judgment, citing the time it takes for a parent to realize they are pregnant and take steps to have an abortion. The prohibition was termed as a “unreasonable violation of privacy.” However, the ruling was limited. Insofar as it was protected by the state’s right to privacy, the majority view said the state might nevertheless place restrictions on abortion access.
The ruling explained, “The State definitely has the jurisdiction to limit the right to privacy that shields women from state intervention with her decision.” South Carolina’s unique 20-week abortion ban, enacted prior to the fetal heartbeat statute, remains in place.
Governor McMaster predicted that defending the measure would be “an uphill struggle” when he signed the six-week moratorium into law in 2021, sparking an early flurry of court challenges. The ban was suspended on its second day of enforcement by a judge.
States such as Georgia, Ohio, and Iowa have also attempted to pass their own “fetal heartbeat” laws, but they, too, face legal obstacles. In November, the state supreme court of Georgia voted to reinstate its “fetal heartbeat” rule pending their review of a lower court’s decision to quash the ban, prompting activists to refer to the matter as “legal ping-pong.”
In March 2022, attorneys general from 21 states, including Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Montana, and Texas, filed an amicus brief in support of South Carolina’s statute, citing Republican support for such prohibitions.
In June, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the precedent set by Roe v. Wade in 1973, essentially terminating the constitutional right to abortion access at the federal level. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization returned abortion rights to the control of the states. A few days after the Dobbs judgment was handed down, on June 27, 2012, the six-week prohibition was reinstated in South Carolina.
“Once the Supreme Court rejected Roe v. Wade,” state attorney general Alan Wilson remarked at the time, “there was no longer a reason to prohibit South Carolina’s Heartbeat Law.”
The South Atlantic chapter of Planned Parenthood filed suit the next month, alleging that the restriction violated the state constitution. However, South Carolina’s attorneys contended that the right to privacy was designed to guard against illegal “search and seizure” and therefore did not apply to abortion. In the months following the Dobbs decision, the South Carolina Supreme Court is regarded as the first court to deliver a final verdict on the validity of abortion under state law.
As a result, Thursday’s judgment has garnered global attention, even from the Democratic administration of US President Joe Biden. “We are encouraged by today’s verdict by the South Carolina Supreme Court against the state’s harsh and dangerous abortion ban,” tweeted White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “Women should be entitled to make their own body-related decisions.”
Republican Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, criticized the ruling as “judicial activism.” Previously, he campaigned for a nationwide ban on abortions beyond 15 weeks. “I find it difficult to think that the drafters of the South Carolina Constitution meant for any clause to prevent elected authorities from establishing legislation protecting unborn children,” he wrote on Thursday.