New SC abortion law remains on hold under judge’s order

COLUMBIA, S.C. — AP — A new South Carolina law banning abortions will stay on hold following a judge’s order on Friday to extend a temporary restraining order.

U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis’ extension runs through March 19. Her original order, issued last month, had been set to expire at midnight on Friday. On Monday, Lewis is set to preside over a hearing on Planned Parenthood’s request for an injunction halting the law altogether while a lawsuit seeking to overturn it is resolved.

Lewis initially suspended the " South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act " on its second day in effect, following a lawsuit from Planned Parenthood. The measure requires doctors to perform ultrasounds to check for a heartbeat in the fetus, which can typically be detected about six weeks after conception. If one is detected, the abortion can only be performed if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest or the mother’s life is in danger.

About a dozen other states have passed similar or more restrictive abortion bans, which could take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court — with three justices appointed by Republican former President Donald Trump — were to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision supporting abortion rights. Federal law supersedes state law.

Opponents of the state’s ban have argued many women don’t know they are pregnant at six weeks, especially if they are not trying to conceive. And, they argue, with such an early deadline, the law gives women little time to consider whether to have an abortion.

Planned Parenthood said the initial restraining order was needed in South Carolina in part because more than 75 women were scheduled to have abortions in the state over the ensuing three days, and most of them would have been banned under the new law.

At Monday’s hearing, attorneys for the state are expected to argue that the law should be allowed to take effect while the lawsuit is ongoing. Earlier this week, two of those attorneys — South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and Walt Wilkins, the prosecutor for two counties in the conservative Upstate — wrote in court papers that a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a ban on partial-birth abortions “suggests that a preliminary injunction should be denied here.”

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed the bill into law less than an hour after state lawmakers sent it to him.

“There’s a lot of happy hearts beating across South Carolina right now,” McMaster said during a signing ceremony at the statehouse attended by lawmakers who made the bill a reality.

McMaster, who has asked to intervene in the lawsuit, has also sought to halt the restraining order, arguing in court papers that the suit is improper in part because Planned Parenthood filed it before he had signed the measure into law.

Planned Parenthood has indicated they plan to oppose McMaster’s request to take part in the case, according to the governor’s attorneys.

The new law doesn’t 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 House passed its bill by a 79-35 vote Feb. 17 after hours of emotional testimony from both supporters and opponents, and gave the measure final approval the next day. Moments after the second vote Thursday, Planned Parenthood announced that it was filing a lawsuit. The “South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act,” like other similar laws currently being challenged, is “blatantly unconstitutional,” said Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.

State bills to restrict or ban abortion “are plainly absurd,” Black said. “There is no other way around it.”

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson issued a statement Friday saying, “We believe the Heartbeat Law is constitutional and deserves a vigorous defense to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.... Today’s temporary restraining order is only a first step, but the legal fight has just begun.”

Lawmakers who supported the bill celebrated their long-awaited victory Thursday.

“We’re about to do what I’ve been trying to do for 25 years: shut down the abortion industry in South Carolina,” said Republican Sen. Larry Grooms.

Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit argues that South Carolina’s new law “is in flagrant violation of nearly five decades of settled Supreme Court precedent.” The suit says a high rate of women, especially African Americans, die during or immediately after childbirth in South Carolina. The abortion ban would fall hardest on low-income women, who wouldn’t be able to travel to a nearby state where abortion is still permitted, the suit says.

Black said the focus on abortion wastes taxpayer money and ignores a host of other important issues such as health care, unequal treatment of women, and education, Black said.

“If lawmakers are really interested in making lives better, we have a long list of priorities they can focus on,” Black said.