Thursday, June 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Federal Judge Extends Block of South Carolina Abortion Ban

The Palmetto State’s new Republican-backed law that bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy has been blocked indefinitely through a preliminary injunction.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) — In a victory for women's health and civil rights advocates, a federal judge on Friday issued an injunction blocking South Carolina’s latest abortion legislation that bans the procedure after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. 

“We applaud the court’s decision to protect South Carolinians from this abortion ban. Despite today’s temporary win, we know there is a long road ahead as the fight to preserve abortion access intensifies by the day. Make no mistake: politicians across the country have made it clear they won’t stop until access to abortion is completely out of reach,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement Friday.

The measure that would have banned abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant, will not take effect unless there is a successful appeal of Friday’s ruling. 

The bill requires physicians to perform ultrasounds on women seeking an abortion. If the doctor detects a fetal heartbeat, an abortion can only be performed if the mother’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.

Just one day after Republican Governor Henry McMaster eagerly signed the bill into law last month, U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis issued a temporary restraining order suspending it for 14 days in response to an emergency motion filed by Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and attorneys with Burnette Shutt McDaniel. 

"That’s a fight worth having right there,” McMaster said last week. “The right to life is very important. This state is overwhelmingly in favor of that bill, and we will do whatever it takes, however long it takes, to see that the right to life is protected in South Carolina.”

Lewis, a Barack Obama appointee, granted a preliminary injunction against the law on Friday as her TRO was set to expire.

“This case does not present a close call. In fact, based on the law, the court is unable to fathom how another court could decide this issue differently than how this court has decided it," the judge wrote. "As such, it is confident no reviewing court will conclude the court has abused its discretion in granting plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction to stay the enforcement of the unconstitutional act."

Blasting state Republican leaders, Lewis added that "it is nothing short of baffling when defendants here make the fanciful, misbegotten, and misguided argument that the act is constitutional, although surely, all the while knowing full well that it is not."

In her opinion, the judge also took time to address the political divisiveness often wrapped up in topics like abortion.

“Nevertheless, the court is well aware some may think the politics of the president who appointed it, and not the law, not the court’s sleepless nights, and not its herculean efforts to get it right, is a consideration and serves as a barometer as to how this court would rule upon the abortion question presented here,” Lewis wrote in the 22-page opinion. 

She added, “And, unwittingly or not, the media tends to feed this narrative by often noting the name of the president who appointed the federal judge assigned to a particular politically divisive matter such as this."

Lewis wrote that the notion that judges take political stances based on who appointed them is misinformed at best and “highly offensive at worst.”

“We judges are not politicians in robes. Or, as Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts said: ‘We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them,’” she added. 

In her statement Friday, McGill Johnson of Planned Parenthood noted that “since Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court, we have seen an onslaught of attacks, with more than 300 abortion bills filed.”

GOP lawmakers are hoping these measures could be implemented if the U.S. Supreme Court, which has three Donald Trump-appointed justices, overturns the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion up until 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

About a dozen Republican-led states have passed abortion restrictions similar to the latest one out of South Carolina, including Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Many of these so-called heartbeat bills have been challenged by civil rights organizations and enjoined by courts. 

Lewis noted in her opinion that Justice Barrett, the high court's newest member, had publicly agreed with Chief Justice Roberts’ aforementioned sentiment about judges not being beholden to politicians.  

She called out as puzzling the suggestion “that, because the composition of the court has changed in recent years, defendants’ probability that the newly-constituted Supreme Court will rule in their favor in this matter is good.”

“As the theory evidently goes, the three justices most recently appointed to the Supreme Court are secretly scheming to overturn both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey because they are personally opposed to abortion,” the judge wrote, referring to another landmark abortion ruling from 1992.

Lewis added, “The court easily rejects such a notion. It has a much higher opinion of the high court than that. After all, law libraries are chock-full of judicial opinions affirming a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy before viability, although the authoring judges and justices of those decisions were and are personally fiercely opposed to [women] having such a right. Those judges’ and justices’ individual opinions on the matter was and is immaterial to their rulings. And, that is as it should be.”

Categories:Civil Rights, Health, Law, Regional

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.