RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling that temporarily blocks the enforcement of South Carolina’s fetal heartbeat law, which would ban most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
The “South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act” is similar to abortion restriction laws previously passed in a dozen states that became tied up in the courts.
South Carolina’s law requires doctors to perform ultrasounds to check for fetal cardiac activity, which can typically be detected about six weeks into pregnancy. Once 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.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed the law last year, but it was immediately challenged in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood.
In its ruling Tuesday, a 3-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lewis, who suspended the law on its second day in effect.
The appeals court rejected the state’s argument that it was improper to stall all parts of the law rather than just the “heartbeat” provision. The court also dismissed the state’s contention that Planned Parenthood did not have legal standing to bring the challenge on behalf of women who would potentially be prevented from getting abortions.
The 4th Circuit found that all of the provisions of the law — including requiring an abortion provider to perform an ultrasound, display the ultrasound images to the patient, and offer the patient the opportunity to listen to any detected fetal heartbeat — are designed to implement the ban.
“These provisions serve to carry out the six-week abortion ban and make little sense without the ban. As such, the district court did not abuse its discretion by declining to sever the remaining portions of the Act,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for the court in the 3-0 ruling.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said he is considering all legal options. His spokesperson declined to say whether the state will ask the 4th Circuit to hold a hearing before the full court.
“We are disappointed in the Court’s opinion. However, we will continue to explore any and all means necessary to protect life in the remaining stages of this case as well as in any other cases that may arise,” Wilson said in a statement.
The ruling comes as states around the country await U.S. Supreme Court action in another case that could dramatically limit abortion rights overall. In December, attorneys for Mississippi asked 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 any demise of Roe could prompt more sweeping bans.
“The court’s decision means that — for now — our patients can continue to come to us, their trusted health care providers, to access abortion and other essential health services,” said Jenny Black, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.
“Today’s decision helps to shield us from one of the most egregious laws, but without continued protection from the courts, South Carolinians may soon have to travel long distances to access an abortion or carry a forced pregnancy,” Black said in a statement.
Opponents of such laws 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 early cardiac activity is not an actual heartbeat but rather an initial flutter of electric movement within cells in an embryo. They say the heart does not begin to form until the fetus is at least nine weeks old, decrying efforts to promote abortion bans by relying on medical inaccuracies.
Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council, said he was disappointed in the 4th Circuit’s ruling.
“When this bill was signed into law in February of last year, the state of South Carolina made a definitive statement that said if you have a heartbeat, it is the responsibility of the state of South Carolina to protect your life. That is wholeheartedly where the majority of people in South Carolina stand,” Wilson said.