Just five weeks into the legislative session, South Carolina lawmakers passed a restrictive “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban bill, and S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster signed it into law Thursday.
The controversial law, which critics say doesn’t give women enough time to get an abortion after learning they’re pregnant, was facing a court challenge before the governor had a chance to sign it.
The law is the second to be signed into law by the governor this session, according to the Legislature’s website.
S. 1 requires doctors to perform an ultrasound to detect a heartbeat before performing any abortion. If a heartbeat is detected, the doctor would be prohibited from performing an abortion unless the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or could cause severe harm to her health, if the fetus has a detectable anomaly that is not compatible with life or in cases where the woman reports being the victim of rape or incest. If a woman reports to a doctor that she was the victim of rape or incest, the doctor would then be required to report the crime to the local sheriff with or without the woman’s consent.
House Republicans celebrated after the bill received a quick third reading Thursday morning, and anti-abortion advocates cheered from the lobby after the bill was passed at about 10:45 a.m.
During a press conference ahead of the governor’s bill signing ceremony, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, called the bill’s passage “a tremendous accomplishment for our state.”
“These folks have been outstanding pro-life warriors for this movement,” Lucas said, surrounded by Republican House members.
“To my colleagues in the Senate, thank you, thank you, for prioritizing this in the Senate,” he added.
Sen. Larry Grooms, the primary sponsor of the “fetal heartbeat” bill, applauded the teamwork between Republicans in the two bodies, who have often disagreed on legislation in the past.
“Too many times, there has been friction between these two bodies,” Grooms said. “On this, we are united.”
Before he sat down at a table situated between the House and the Senate to sign the bill, McMaster called it “a happy day.” McMaster pointed to the founding documents of the United States, which promise life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“If there is not a right to life, what rights are there?” McMaster asked a crowded lobby of supporters. “We’re here to protect that.”
“We have a duty … to protect life above all else,” he added.
Critics fight back
The “heartbeat” abortion ban comes after years of efforts to restrict access to abortions in South Carolina.
Before Thursday, abortion opponents in South Carolina celebrated their last win in 2016 with the passage of a 20-week abortion ban that was largely symbolic: South Carolina records but a handful of abortions after the 20-week mark each year, and physicians have testified that those procedures are done in wanted pregnancies to protect the life and health of the mother or in the event that the fetus is not expected to live outside of the womb, both exceptions that the 20-week ban allowed.
Critics call the “heartbeat” law blatantly unconstitutional, a denial of the right to an abortion before viability, which is defined at about 24 weeks of pregnancy. That right, they say, is protected by the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited states’ ability to restrict access to abortion.
For Democrats and some Republicans, doubts about the bill’s constitutionality were a major red flag.
In other states where similar legislation has passed, courts have granted injunctions as challenges were heard. Currently, no similar piece of legislation has been successfully put into place in any state.
Anti-abortion advocates hope, though, that “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban bills can be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the newly conservative court, with three members appointed by former President Donald Trump, could overturn Roe v. Wade.
About and hour after the House passed the bill, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and the Greenville Women’s Clinic filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop S. 1 from going into effect.
“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,” said Jenny Black, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, in a statement.
Black continued: “South Carolina maintains some of the starkest health disparities in the country, with Black women dying at four times the rate of white women after they have given birth. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic remains committed to keeping our doors open for our patients and ensuring abortion is safe, legal, and accessible in South Carolina.”
“We will never back down from this fight.”
In a very brief statement, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, said his office received notice of the lawsuit.
“My office will vigorously defend this law in court because there is nothing more important than protecting life,” Wilson said.
Critics of the “fetal heartbeat” abortion law also argue it does not give women enough time to get an abortion, banning the procedure before many women even know they’re pregnant.
During the last few years, abortions performed after six weeks of probable post-fertilization age in South Carolina made up about 55% of all abortions performed in the state, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Of the 5,101 abortions performed in the state in 2019, 2,323 were performed at six weeks or gestation or earlier.
But abortion providers who are challenging the law in court say it would create a near total ban on abortions because a transvaginal ultrasound can detect early embryonic cardiac activity — “present before development of any cardiovascular system” — sometimes sooner than six weeks after the last menstrual period, according to the lawsuit.
Critics of the law sounded off after the House passed it Thursday afternoon.
Several civil and women’s rights groups — including the ACLU of South Carolina, the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and SC Equality — issued a joint statement decrying the restrictive legislation.
“Today, South Carolina has become the latest state to demonstrate its disrespect and disregard for the lives and welfare of its residents by signing into law S.1 – the extreme and dangerous 6-week abortion ban,” the statement read. “In the middle of a raging pandemic that is causing unprecedented loss of life and livelihood, it is appalling that our elected officials have chosen to prioritize taking away health care and human rights from people. They have ignored the voices of countless South Carolinians, doctors, lawyers, business leaders, and faith leaders who have told them just how dangerous this law will be.”
Senate Democrats called the passage of the bill “deeply regrettable” and called out McMaster, a lawyer, for signing a bill that is likely unconstitutional.
“While South Carolinians are still dying from a pandemic that rages on, the Governor and his allies threw themselves a celebration for their attempt to strip away the rights of women. Their priorities are shameful,” the statement from the Senate Democratic Caucus read.
“With this bill signing, Republican leaders chose to enter an inevitably lengthy and costly legal battle at the expense of taxpayers. This abortion ban will be struck down like every other abortion ban in every other state that has attempted before this one. They will not be successful in their endeavors to take away the rights of women and girls in South Carolina. “
GOP drove bill’s swift passage
The bill passed through the Legislature in record time thanks to a Republican majority that was strengthened after the November election.
The Senate passed the bill Jan. 28 after days of heated debate and Republican infighting. One faction of Republican senators argued that the bill should not include exceptions for rape, incest and fatal fetal anomaly, while another maintained the exceptions were necessary because the Legislature needed to balance the rights of the mother with the fetus in cases of rape or incest. Some senators threatened to withdraw their support for the bill if exceptions were not included.
Throughout the bill’s legislative life, Democrats argued that the state’s General Assembly should be focused on other issues like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some also questioned whether a body that was comprised of mostly-men should be the ones to tell women what to do with their bodies.
In the House, the bill had a smoother path to passage. House GOP leadership worked to keep any new amendments out of the bill, so it could quickly become law after the chamber adopted it.
Still, Democrats tried to push a number of amendments in an effort to impede the bill’s passage.
In committee, S.C. Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, introduced an amendment that would allow expectant mothers and their partners to carry guns to protect the fetus. On the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, introduced amendments that would remove the requirement for doctors to report allegations of rape or incest to law enforcement, one that would require the attorney general to litigate cases involving this legislation and an amendment that would stop the bill from going into effect until the court ruled that other similar bills are constitutional.
Democrats also participated in a walk out in protest Wednesday afternoon as the bill was being debated. Still, Republicans passed the bill by a hefty margin.