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South Carolina's 'fetal heartbeat' anti-abortion law remains blocked for now

John Monk, The State on

Published in Political News

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A federal judge indicated Monday she would soon issue a ruling on whether to keep in place a ban on South Carolina’s strict new law that critics say would outlaw most abortions.

But during a 40-minute hearing at Columbia’s federal courthouse, U.S. District Judge Mary Lewis did not set a specific date by which she would make a ruling on whether to impose a more permanent prohibition on the state’s new abortion law.

The new law, blocked the day after it went into effect last month, would outlaw the “vast majority” of abortions in South Carolina, right-to-choose attorney Julie Murray told Lewis during the hearing. Murray represents Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and other plaintiffs who provide abortion and women’s health care services in South Carolina. The providers sued the state last month to keep the law from being implemented.

Although Lewis told lawyers that she wants to reflect on her upcoming decision, the judge’s questions and observations during the hearing appeared to leave little doubt that she was prepared to issue what is called a “preliminary injunction” that would more permanently stop the state’s new law from taking effect.

Several times, Lewis made it clear to Emory Smith, deputy solicitor general for State Attorney General Alan Wilson, that the state’s new anti-abortion law goes against nearly 50 years of U.S. Supreme Court decisions establishing a woman’s constitutional right to abortions up to about 24 week of pregnancy. South Carolina’s new law would only allow abortions up to about six to eight weeks of pregnancy.

The fetus is thought to have reached “viability” at about 24 weeks, which means it has a chance of surviving outside the womb if born prematurely.

 

The state’s position is that since cardiac activity in an embryo can be detected as early as six weeks, “the presence of a heartbeat is a sign that the fetus is highly likely to survive until live birth,” according to state legal filings. Thus, six weeks or so should be the new standard after which nearly all abortions should be banned, state filings said.

Although the Legislature may have had the child’s possible future life in mind when it passed its anti-abortion law, that “can never outweigh a person’s right to exercise her constitutional right” to an abortion before viability, Lewis told Smith.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Smith told Lewis.

Lewis replied, “It’s not what I’m saying, it’s what the courts are saying — five decades of precedent.”

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