SC’s 6-week abortion ban now law after McMaster signs bill. Up next? A lawsuit

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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Thursday signed a six-week abortion ban into law, triggering a court challenge filed by Planned Parenthood and its partners.

The signing, held with five Republican state lawmakers but no media — a contrast to the governor’s six-week ban bill signing in 2021, when hundreds packed the State House during the COVID-19 pandemic to watch — was announced by McMaster’s office.

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, the Greenville Women’s Clinic and two physicians who provide abortions in South Carolina immediately filed a lawsuit in state court Thursday, asking that the law be blocked and for a temporary restraining order to prevent the law’s enforcement. As of press deadline Thursday, the court had not made a decision.

In January, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled a similar six-week ban unconstitutional.

“With my signature, the ‘Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act’ is now law and will begin saving the lives of unborn children immediately,” McMaster said in a statement Thursday after the bill signing. “This is a great day for life in South Carolina, but the fight is not over. We stand ready to defend this legislation against any challenges and are confident we will succeed. The right to life must be preserved, and we will do everything we can to protect it.”

On Tuesday, the Senate advanced the so-called “fetal heartbeat” ban, S. 474, in a 27-19 vote, mostly along part lines.

All five female senators — three Republicans, one Democrat and one Independent — voted against the House-modified bill, arguing the General Assembly had more important issues to debate and women can make their own decisions regarding their health care.

“I’m tired. I’m disappointed. I do believe that the compromise I offered (at 12 weeks, 20 weeks for rape and incest) was a good compromise for everybody. I think 12 weeks was reasonable,” state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, told The State newspaper Thursday. “It’s not what the right wanted, it’s not what the left wanted, but I think that it was a good compromise.”

The now-law caps months of Republican infighting over abortion restrictions following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision, after the House last year first passed its own ban at conception and refused to debate the Senate’s six-week ban, despite Senate leaders showing the upper chamber lacked the votes necessary.

Both chambers passed similar bans this year and, after a monthslong standoff, the House agreed to the Senate’s proposal.

“It has been a long and bumpy road, but it was an important debate to have, and I’m glad we finally got a resolution on it,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, told reporters Tuesday. “It’s something that is going to make South Carolina not the abortion destination state of the southeast, and I think that’s important. I think we’ve struck a compromise, at the detection of a heartbeat (typically around six to eight weeks), which is something that a lot of South Carolinians will support.”

In his case to back a six-week ban, Massey pointed at state health data that showed, at the previous 20-week ban, South Carolina reported 6,279 abortions in 2021, and 7,277 abortions last year — an increase, in part, due to out-of-state visitors from states with stricter abortion restrictions.

The state’s new law bans abortions at around six weeks, or once fetal cardiac activity is detected, when most people don’t know that they’re pregnant. With only three small abortion clinics in South Carolina — Charleston, Columbia and Greenville — plus an appointment backlog and new requirements to get an abortion, abortion-rights backers say the law is essentially a near-total ban.

“State lawmakers have once again trampled on our right to make private health care decisions, ignoring warnings from health care providers and precedent set by the state’s highest court just a few months ago.,” Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said in a statement Thursday. “The decision of if, when, and how to have a child is deeply personal, and politicians making that decision for anyone else is government overreach of the highest order. We will always fight for our patients’ ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and access the health care they need. We urge the court to take swift action to block this dangerous ban on abortion.”

In 2021, McMaster signed a similar six-week abortion ban that, almost immediately, was challenged in court and temporarily blocked by a federal judge. After the high court’s Dobbs decision last summer, overruling the 1973 landmark case Roe v. Wade, the state’s previous six-week ban took effect, but was later blocked by the state Supreme Court as it mulled its constitutionality.

In a 3-2 decision in January, the court ruled the six-week ban violated the state’s constitutional right to privacy.

Former Justice Kaye Hearn, the only woman on the high court who wrote in the court’s majority, has since retired due to the state’s 72-year age limit for judges. She was replaced by Justice Gary Hill, a legislative election that resulted in an all-male court.

Massey told reporters Tuesday that legislators made an effort this year to ensure the state’s new six-week ban will be upheld by the court. He said the rewrite of the six-week ban was not “targeted” at all based on the new makeup of the court.

“If it’s not unanimous, I would like it to be 4-1. I don’t want to have a 3-2 split vote,” Massey said. “I think we made enough adjustments to the original law to respond to, especially, Justice (John) Few’s concerns that I’m hopeful that we can win him over.”

But the South Carolina Supreme Court was clear, Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement Thursday.

“Banning abortion after approximately six weeks was unconstitutional six months ago, and it’s still unconstitutional now,” Northup said.

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, the Greenville Women’s Clinic and both physicians are being represented by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights and law firm Burnette Shutt & McDaniel.

This is a developing story. It will be updated.