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South Carolina Supreme Court temporarily blocks 6-week abortion ban

In North Carolina, meanwhile, a federal judge tightened the state’s abortion restrictions, reinstating a ban on the procedure after 20 weeks

Supporters of abortion rights gather to watch the South Carolina Senate Medical Affairs Committee hearing on abortion outside the statehouse on Aug. 17 in Columbia, S.C. (James Pollard/AP)
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The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday temporarily blocked the state’s near-total abortion ban, which barred patients from terminating a pregnancy at around six weeks, after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. The ban took effect shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, a federal judge tightened the state’s abortion restrictions, reinstating a ban on the procedure after 20 weeks.

In its unanimous order, the South Carolina court decided to uphold the pre-Dobbs “status quo” by temporarily enjoining South Carolina’s Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act, which was passed in 2021. That law did not take effect until it was “triggered” when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in late June. Abortions have been banned in South Carolina at about six weeks since June 27.

Abortion access advocates in South Carolina cheered the court’s decision to allow abortions to resume while the legal challenge moves forward.

“We applaud the court’s decision to protect the people of South Carolina from this cruel law that interferes with a person’s private medical decision,” Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said in a statement. “For more than six weeks, patients have been forced to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion or suffer the life-altering consequences of forced pregnancy.”

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson (R), who is defending the abortion ban on behalf of the state, said this was only the start of legal battle.

“While we are disappointed, it’s important to point out this is a temporary injunction,” Wilson said in an emailed statement. “The court didn’t rule on the constitutionality of the Fetal Heartbeat law. We will continue to defend the law.”

The court decision comes amid efforts by South Carolina lawmakers to pass an even more restrictive abortion ban during an extended legislative session that has stretched into the summer. One proposed bill that passed out of a statehouse committee on Tuesday does not include exceptions for victims of rape or incest. The state Senate’s version is dubbed the “Equal Protection at Conception - No Exceptions - Act” and would outlaw all abortions.

As the South Carolina Supreme Court temporarily blocked the state’s current abortion ban, dozens of members of the public testified for and against the proposed total ban before the Senate Medical Affairs Committee.

The court did not weigh in on the merits of the case challenging the state’s ban. Instead, the justices said that, after the U.S. Supreme Court established a national right to abortion access in Roe in 1973, “the South Carolina legislature responded in 1974 by essentially codifying the Roe framework” into state law. Because that 1974 state code “arguably creates a conflict in the law,” the court said it would enjoin the six-week ban until those potential conflicts are resolved and the legal challenge is settled.

In North Carolina, U.S. District Judge William Osteen reinstated a 20-week abortion ban, which includes exceptions for medical emergencies.

In his decision, Osteen wrote that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs effectively nullified a 2019 injunction on the 20-week ban, passed in 1973. Since the injunction went into effect three years ago, North Carolina allowed abortions until fetal viability, around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

“Neither this court, nor the public, nor counsel, nor providers have the right to ignore the rule of law as determined by the Supreme Court,” Osteen wrote in his opinion.

Earlier this month, all parties in the 2019 case — including North Carolina’s Democratic attorney general — filed briefs arguing that the injunction should remain in effect.

The decision further limits abortion access in the South, where many states, including Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama have effectively banned the procedure.