SC Supreme Court upholds state’s ‘Fetal Heartbeat’ law

McMaster, other leaders react to ruling, lifting of injunction
Gov. Henry McMaster is calling a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling on the state’s fetal heartbeat bill a victory for the sanctity of life.
Published: Aug. 23, 2023 at 10:12 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 23, 2023 at 11:28 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Gov. Henry McMaster is calling a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling on the state’s fetal heartbeat bill a victory for the sanctity of life.

The ruling, filed Wednesday morning, declared the state’s Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act constitutional and ended an injunction blocking the law’s enforcement.

That injunction was issued shortly after Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, the Greenville Women’s Clinic and two doctors filed a lawsuit against the state immediately after McMaster signed a new version of the act into law on May 25.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling marks a historic moment in our state’s history and is the culmination of years of hard work and determination by so many in our state to ensure that the sanctity of life is protected,” McMaster said. “With this victory, we protect the lives of countless unborn children and reaffirm South Carolina’s place as one of the most pro-life states in America.”

The state’s high court found the 2021 version of the bill unconstitutional back in January in a 3-2 vote. In response, the state’s General Assembly revised the 2021 law. The state’s newly-all-male Supreme Court heard arguments on the new lawsuit back in June.

“It is unmistakable that the legislature focused on the alleged defects in the 2021 Act,” Justice John Kittredge wrote. “The result was the passage of the 2023 Act.”

The new act “generally prohibits an abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, not at a specified period of weeks into the pregnancy,” Kittredge wrote.

The law provides limited exceptions allowing for an abortion in the event of a risk to the health of the mother, fatal fetal anomalies, rape, and incest.

“It is apparent the South Carolina General Assembly carefully crafted the 2023 Act in an effort to demonstrate that its policy decision was not arbitrary,” Kittredge wrote. “Specifically, the legislature explained it had placed weight on the fact that a woman could learn of her pregnancy within seven to fourteen days of conception and would have several weeks after that to make her decision and have an abortion if she so chose.”

Justice John Cannon Few wrote that he voted to strike down the 2021 act because the General Assembly said it recognized in that version a woman’s interest in making “an informed choice about whether to continue a pregnancy,” yet banned essentially all abortions “without the General Assembly having made any inquiry as to whether a substantial percentage of women even know they are pregnant” in time to make such a choice.

Kittredge said the General Assembly claimed it “took into consideration the interests of the pregnant woman and balanced them against the legitimate interest of the state to protect the life of the unborn.”

The new lawsuit, which asked the state’s Supreme Court to find the new version unconstitutional, prompted a circuit court to place an injunction on the new bill, preventing it from being enforced until the court could rule.

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic President and CEO Jenny Black said the decision puts “the dangerous politicization of South Carolina’s highest court on full display,” saying the ruling will cause “irreparable harm” to South Carolinians.

“This abortion ban is nearly identical to the ban struck down by this court just months ago — the only thing that has changed is the makeup of the court,” Black said. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic’s doors remain open, and we will continue to provide abortion care in South Carolina under the severe restrictions of this law, but we know that’s not enough. This abortion ban takes away people’s ability to control what happens to their bodies, forcing many South Carolinians to remain pregnant against their will. Planned Parenthood and our partners will keep fighting for our patients’ ability to control their own bodies, lives, and futures — no matter what.”

Before Wednesday’s ruling, abortions had been legal in South Carolina through 20 weeks into a pregnancy.

That was one of the least restrictive limits in the southeast, and DHEC reported the number of people from other states seeking abortions in the state had skyrocketed since last fall.

“This decision is devastating, not only because of the impact it will have on South Carolinians, but because South Carolina is a critical state across the South,” Center for Reproductive Rights Attorney, Caroline Sacredote, says.

The decision was made by a different makeup of Supreme Court judges, with the entirety being male.

South Carolina is the only state Supreme Court in the nation made up entirely of men.

“They believe that the women of South Carolina will be able to know they are pregnant, make an appointment and receive care in less time than it took them to make the decision,” Planned Parenthood Director of Public Affairs, Vicki Ranger, says.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the law firm Burnette Shutt & McDaniel represented the plaintiffs in the case.

Center for Reproductive Rights President and CEO Nancy Northup said in a statement the court “turned their backs on South Carolinians and their fundamental rights.”

“The South Carolina Supreme Court took an extreme step backwards by letting this six-week ban go into effect, despite striking down a nearly identical ban just seven months ago,” Northup said. “A change in the court’s makeup shouldn’t change the enduring protections of South Carolina’s constitution. South Carolinians’ rights should not be up for debate. Under this cruel ban, people across the South will be forced to travel even further just to get the essential healthcare they need. The right to make deeply personal health care decisions should not depend on where you live, and we will not stop fighting for reproductive freedom in South Carolina and across the country.”

Gov. Henry McMaster is calling a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling on the state’s fetal heartbeat bill a victory for the sanctity of life.

Leaders, political parties respond to Supreme Court ruling

Wednesday morning, leaders on both sides of the aisle weighed in on the decision.

Attorney General Alan Wilson said he was proud of his team for defending the law.

“The South Carolina Supreme Court’s historic decision to uphold the state’s Fetal Heartbeat Act is a huge win in our efforts to protect the unborn and save innocent lives,” Wilson said. “I appreciate all the hard work of our state legislature and am proud of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office team that defended this law in court.”

State Rep. J.A. Moore (D-Charleston), who is running for state Senate, said he was “deeply disheartened” by what he called the court’s decision to “reverse course and allow a near-total abortion ban” a “distressing setback for women’s rights and reproductive freedom.”

“Throughout my career, I have consistently supported protecting women’s reproductive rights. I haven’t changed my stance, and I have never strayed from advocating for women’s reproductive rights or protecting their doctors. As a Senator in the South Carolina Senate, I promise to continue fighting for women’s freedom,” he said. ”This is about freedom, having control over one’s own body, and ensuring equality for all. I strongly believe that everyone should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies without government interference. We must make sure that reproductive healthcare remains accessible, safe, and private. While this recent decision is disappointing, it only strengthens my resolve to keep pushing for progress.”

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who is also running for Senate, says nobody should ever tell a female what she should be doing with her body.

“It doesn’t surprise me, because when you look at the five Justices sad to say, as far as gender, all male, that’s first problem right now,” Gilliard says. “Second problem, you have a governor who just won’t listen to ‘We The People.’”

The Senate’s Majority Leader, Shane Massey, says the decision is a big win for life.

“Not only does this policy mean that we’re not going to have the destination state, but we’re probably also going to reduce, almost certainly going to reduce what we were having historically anyway,” he says.

The South Carolina Freedom Caucus released this statement Wednesday afternoon:

Despite efforts by radical Democrats and their moderate Republican allies who packed South Carolina’s Supreme Court with liberal judges for the past three decades, the Palmetto State is no longer a national destination for abortion.

Today’s ruling is long overdue for a state that should have led the nation in protecting life and underscores the need for judicial reform.

While this is a welcome decision that protects the sanctity of life, much work remains unfinished in protecting all children, born and unborn. As we have in the past, the Freedom Caucus will continue to lead the fight to ensure the right to life enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is realized for every citizen.

South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Christale Spain released a statement calling the legislation “horrifying and dystopian.”

Thanks to the MAGA Republicans in our legislature, an all-male court has upheld horrifying and dystopian legislation that bans abortion in South Carolina before many women even have the chance to find out they’re pregnant. Doctors and nurses will be threatened with fines and jail time just for providing vital health care, rape and incest victims will be forced to share the crimes committed against them just to get the care they need, and women in rural, low-income, and communities of color across the Palmetto State who already face insurmountable barriers to health care will be disproportionately impacted.

As a woman I understand firsthand how devastating this decision is for us. My heart breaks for the women who will be denied health care, for the women who can’t afford to travel out of state to get the health care they need, and for the families who have once again had a vital freedom ripped away from them because of dangerous Republicans who care more about controlling women’s bodies than delivering for our hard-working families. This cruel abortion ban is the same extremism MAGA Republicans are fighting to take nationwide, but this isn’t the end of our fight. South Carolinians will see the extreme legislators who made this happen at the ballot box next year.

South Carolina Republican Party Chair Drew McKissick championed the decision by the court:

We have fought tirelessly to protect the lives of our unborn children, and today in South Carolina, we have won. This decision reaffirms the hard work of the South Carolina Republican Party to ensure the lives of the unborn have someone fighting for them.