South Carolina’s “heartbeat” abortion law is constitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, vacating a preliminary injunction that had barred the measure from taking effect.
In May, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, signed into law the Fetal Heartbeat and Protection From Abortion Act. The measure restricted abortions in the state once a fetal heartbeat is detected, effectively banning most abortions after about six weeks.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and others challenged the law. Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman halted enforcement later in May, leaving the decision to the state Supreme Court.
“The [state] 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 in a formal statement. “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.”
In January, the South Carolina Supreme Court had struck down the state’s 2021 iteration of the law in a 3-2 decision, saying the “state constitutional right to privacy extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.”
In their ruling Wednesday, however, justices said it would be “a rogue imposition” to overturn the Legislature’s determination that the state has “a compelling interest in protecting the lives of unborn children.”
“That finding is indisputable and one we must respect,” Justice John W. Kittredge wrote in the majority opinion.
Justices John Cannon Few, George C. James Jr., and D. Garrison Hill concurred. Few, who had voted to strike down the 2021 law, also issued a concurring opinion.
“The Legislature has further determined, after vigorous debate and compromise, that its interest in protecting the unborn becomes actionable upon the detection of a fetal heartbeat via ultrasound by qualified medical personnel,” the high court’s majority opinion says. “It would be a rogue imposition of will by the judiciary for us to say that the Legislature’s determination is unreasonable as a matter of law—particularly on the record before us and in the specific context of a claim arising under the privacy provision in Article I, Section 10 of our state Constitution.”
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty said the ruling “impaired our role as an independent and co-equal branch of government.”
“Today, however, the majority has abandoned the precedent established just months earlier by this court and, despite its insistence otherwise, has turned a blind eye to the obvious fact that the 2021 act and the 2023 act are the same,” Beatty wrote. “The result will essentially force an untold number of affected women to give birth without their consent. I am hard-pressed to think of a greater governmental intrusion by a political body.”
“In the absence of this critical determination, I fail to see how the majority’s result today is legally justifiable,” Beatty wrote, adding: “As previously noted, the fear of legislative reprisal is palpable. The lack of judicial independence renders a court powerless and places it on the edge of a slippery slope to irrelevance.”
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