South Carolina 'fetal heartbeat' bill heads to appeals court

An appellate court is preparing to hear arguments over a lawsuit challenging South Carolina’s abortion law

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- An appellate court is preparing to hear arguments over a lawsuit challenging South Carolina’s abortion law, as states around the country await U.S. Supreme Court action in another case that could dramatically limit abortion rights overall.

On Thursday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear arguments in Planned Parenthood's case against South Carolina's measure.

Signed by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster last year, the law requires doctors to perform ultrasounds to check for a so-called “fetal heartbeat," which can typically be detected about six weeks into pregnancy. If cardiac activity is detected, the abortion can only be performed if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest, or if the mother’s life is in danger.

Opponents have argued that many women do not know they are pregnant at six weeks. And, they say, with such an early deadline, the law gives women little time to consider whether to have an abortion.

Medical experts say the cardiac activity is not an actual heartbeat but rather an initial flutter of electric movement within cells in an embryo. They say the heart doesn’t begin to form until the fetus is at least nine weeks old, and they decry efforts to promote abortion bans by relying on medical inaccuracies.

The new law does not punish a pregnant woman for getting an illegal abortion, but the person who performs the procedure can be charged with a felony, sentenced up to two years and fined $10,000 if found guilty.

South Carolina has three clinics that provide abortions in its largest metropolitan areas — Charleston, Columbia and Greenville — and none of them perform abortions after the first trimester. Two of them perform abortions only twice a week, according to Planned Parenthood.

The 4th Circuit had originally planned to hear the case the week of Dec. 6, a week after the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to a new law in Mississippi, which wants the high court to uphold its ban on most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. The state also asked justices to overrule the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case and the follow-up 1992 decision that prevents states from banning abortion before viability, the point around 24 weeks of pregnancy when a fetus can survive outside the womb.

South Carolina’s law has been blocked, pending the outcome of that case. If the court simply upholds Mississippi’s ban, other Republican-governed states would likely enact similar measures, while the demise of Roe could prompt more sweeping bans.

Texas' abortion law, the most restrictive in the nation, also bans abortions as early as six weeks but has no exceptions for rape or incest. Legal challenges against the measure are ongoing, but the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed it to remain in effect.

In July, 20 mostly Republican-led states went on record in support of South Carolina’s law, arguing that a federal judge was wrong to pause the entire measure instead of just the provision being challenged. Several months later, 20 Democratic attorneys general voiced support for the legal challenge to South Carolina’s law, arguing that the restrictive measure could harm their states by taxing resources if women cross borders to seek care.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.