Judge Blocks South Carolina Abortion Ban Day After Governor Signs Bill

Planned Parenthood immediately won a temporary restraining order against the new fetal-heartbeat abortion law after arguing it was needed to prevent irreparable harm to women in the Palmetto State.

An anti-abortion protester holds up a sign as South Carolina Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, speaks against a fetal-heartbeat abortion bill in the Statehouse on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) — A day after South Carolina banned nearly all abortions, a federal judge on Friday suspended the new law for 14 days.

Planned Parenthood sued South Carolina hours after Republican Governor Henry McMaster signed into law the state’s ban on abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

A hearing on the organization’s request for temporary restraining order began Friday around 1 p.m. before U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis, a Barack Obama appointee. Lewis ruled from the bench to implement a 14-day block of the law, which she will renew until she can revisit the issue during a more in-depth hearing on March 9.

“If this law is allowed to go into effect, it will pose a serious threat to South Carolinians’ health and livelihood,” Planned Parenthood South Atlantic CEO Jenny Black said in a statement Thursday.

The Republican-backed 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.

It also requires doctors to give a patient’s contact information to local law enforcement officials if an abortion is performed on a woman who says they were a victim of rape or incest.

“South Carolina abortion providers generally do not initiate an abortion until sometime between 4 and 5 weeks [since last menstrual period], when a pregnancy can first be located in the uterus using transvaginal ultrasound,” the lawsuit states. “Accordingly, even patients who discover that they are pregnant at an early date could have just a matter of days between the point when a pregnancy can be located in the uterus and when an ultrasound would detect cardiac activity.”

A fetal heartbeat can usually be detected at six weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know they are pregnant. South Carolina’s previous law barred abortions after 20 weeks.

The lawsuit lists South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, as the defendant.

“My office will vigorously defend this law in court because there is nothing more important than protecting life,” Wilson said in a statement following the filing.

McMaster expressed a similar sentiment on Thursday after signing the bill, which passed the state House in a 79-35 vote the day before. The governor said the state will “defend it with everything in us because there is nothing more important than protecting the sanctity of life.”

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster holds up a bill banning almost all abortions in the state after he signed it into law on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

But Planned Parenthood called out that argument, pointing to a lack of movement on other issues.

“If South Carolina politicians truly cared about the quality of life for women and children, they would get to work to expedite the vaccine rollout, expand Medicaid, and address the dangerously high rates of maternal mortality and infant mortality in the state. South Carolina maintains some of the starkest health disparities in the country, with Black women dying at a far higher rate than white women after they have given birth,” Black said.

She said abortion bans disproportionately hurt people who already have the least access to quality health care, “including people with low incomes, people of color, people who are LGBTQ, and those who live in rural areas.”

Planned Parenthood says 75 women are scheduled to have abortions in the state over the next three days, and most of them would have been banned under the new law.

The measure also allowed the state to charge a person who is found to have illegally performed an abortion with a felony. The doctor could be fined $10,000 and sentenced to up to two years in jail.

Center for Reproductive Rights President and CEO Nancy Northup said the ban “blatantly defies nearly 50 years of Supreme Court precedent protecting a person’s right to end a pregnancy.”

“Many states have passed similar bans in an attempt to send a Roe test case to the Supreme Court, but courts have blocked them all,” she said, referring to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that legalized abortion up until 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

About a dozen Republican-led states have passed strict abortion measures similar to the latest one out of South Carolina, many of which were immediately met with litigation from civil rights groups and blocked in court.

“Yet, the bans keep coming, even in the midst of a pandemic,” Northup added, noting that she expects many more abortion laws to pass this year. “This ban was the first bill filed in the South Carolina Senate this year. There is a new administration in the White House, but reproductive rights are still under attack across the country,”

Abortion laws like the one in South Carolina could be implemented across the country if the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, which has three Donald Trump-appointed justices, overturns Roe v. Wade.

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, also decried the conservative push to ban abortions despite Democrats coming out ahead in last year’s election.

“Even after voters elected pro-sexual and reproductive health majorities in both chambers of Congress and the presidency, state legislatures across the country are doubling down on their attempts to systematically block access to abortion,” Johnson said in a statement.

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