South Carolina 6-week abortion ban signed into law, providers file lawsuit

A state court struck down a previous six-week ban.

May 25, 2023, 8:25 AM

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed a six-week abortion ban into law Thursday, with it going into effect immediately. The new ban prohibits all abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, which generally occurs at six weeks of pregnancy, with limited exceptions, according to the ban.

"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. "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."

Abortion providers Planned Parenthood and Greenville Women's Clinic have filed a lawsuit challenging the state's ban and seeking a temporary restraining order that would prevent enforcement of the law.

"Abortion providers have asked a state trial court to block S. 474 on the grounds that it violates South Carolinians' constitutional rights to privacy, equal protection, and substantive due process by banning abortion, providing inadequate protections for patients' health, conditioning sexual assault survivors' access to abortion on the disclosure of their personal information to law enforcement, violating the Medicaid Act, and improperly targeting Planned Parenthood through an unconstitutional bill of attainder," Planned Parenthood said in a statement.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a written statement Thursday evening that South Carolina's "extreme and dangerous" ban on abortions past six weeks " will criminalize health care providers and cause delays and denials of health and life-saving care."

"South Carolina's ban will cut off access to abortion for women in the state and those across the entire region for whom South Carolina is their closest option for care," Jean-Pierre said.

McMaster signed a previous so-called "heartbeat ban" into law in 2021, but it was struck down by the state's Supreme Court in January.

Fifteen states have ceased nearly all abortion services since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending federal protections for abortion rights.

Governor Henry McMaster speaks to media after Brian Gaines is sworn in as South Carolina Comptroller General at the South Carolina State House on Friday, May 11, 2023.
Joshua Boucher/The State/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Under the new ban, abortions are permitted to prevent the death of the pregnant woman, to prevent the serious risk of a substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function, in cases of rape and incest and if the fetus has a fatal anomaly, according to the ban. The exception does not include psychological and emotional conditions.

Conditions listed under the exception include molar pregnancy, partial molar pregnancy, blighted ovum, ectopic pregnancy, severe preeclampsia, HELLP syndrome, abruptio placentae, severe physical maternal trauma, uterine rupture, intrauterine fetal demise and miscarriage, according to the bill.

Anyone who violates the ban is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, must be fined $10,000, face prison time of up to two years or both. Physicians or medical providers found guilty of performing illegal abortions will also have their licenses revoked.

Planned Parenthood said, along with its partners, that it is prepared to challenge the ban in court.

"Abortion is already difficult to access in South Carolina, with only three abortion clinics in the state and a range of limitations on access imposed by state lawmakers. South Carolina ranks 43rd -- in the bottom 10 of all states -- with the highest maternal mortality rates. Women here are three times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than the average U.S. woman," Planned Parenthood said in a statement.

Abortion-rights activists wait for state lawmakers to arrive before a Senate vote on a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy at the South Carolina Statehouse on May 23, 2023 in Columbia, S.C.
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'Sister senators' fight against ban

A group of five women senators, the only five in the legislative body, has fought against the bill. The group, who've adopted the term "sister senators," told ABC News that a short holiday week near the end of the legislation session would be the time the men would "shove it down our throats."

Even before the vote they had a sense that a back-room deal had been made to get it through. After three attempts, the senators' filibuster failed to block the bill from passing.

"Women are 51% of the South Carolina population [but hold] only 14% of the General Assembly and even less than that in the Senate. What I believe is that women are going to show up at the ballot box," state Sen. Sandy Senn said.

The group of women are very different -- three Republicans, one Democrat and one independent -- but they are all religious mothers who are certain this bill passing in the state Senate would be bad for women in the state. None of them viewed themselves as women's rights advocates or feminists and they all said they were "pro-life."

"We all believe in life. We believe in life for the woman as well as a life for the child," state Sen. Margie Bright-Matthews told ABC News.

They needed two men to cross over to vote with them on Tuesday to block the ban, but one of their previous allies had gone dark, which they knew wasn't a good sign.

Abortion options for women in the Deep South are now closing fast, with Florida's six-week ban awaiting a court ruling soon and North Carolina's 12-week ban taking effect.

What is in the ban?

Women will be required to have to in-person doctors appointments before they can receive an abortion.

Under the ban, pregnant women cannot be criminally prosecuted or face civil liability for violations of the ban.

If the fetus is alive in utero, physicians are required to make reasonable efforts to preserve the life of the unborn child, provided that does not pose a risk to the health of the pregnant women, according to the bill. Entities that violate this will be fined up to $50,000, according to the bill.

Physicians who perform abortions under the health exceptions have to rationalize why they believe the woman qualifies for the exception in her medical records, according to the bill.

Demonstrators gather with placards and signs in the lobby of the South Carolina Statehouse, May 16, 2023, in Columbia, S.C.
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Abortions performed under the rape and incest exceptions must report it to the sheriff in the county in which the abortion was performed within 24 hours. Physicians must tell the patient they will report the rape before the abortion is performed.

Physicians are also required to maintain a copy of the patient's records for seven years after an abortion is performed under the exception. Failing to do so would be a felony with up to two years of imprisonment and a $10,000 fine on the physician, according to the bill.

Pregnant women upon whom an abortion is performed in violation of the law can seek actual and punitive damages against the violator.

ABC News' Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.

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