After the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld a “heartbeat” abortion ban Wednesday, abortion providers object that the ruling offers no definition for what a “fetal heartbeat” even means.
In a footnote of its majority opinion, the court explicitly said that specific definition should be left “for another day.”
The state’s abortion ban has generally been accepted to stop the procedure at six weeks after conception, but medical experts and abortion providers are questioning that rule, noting that a fetus isn’t formed until 8-10 weeks into a pregnancy, and the heart’s four chambers are not formed until 18-20 weeks.
The groups filed to challenge the court’s ruling Thursday, seeking clarity on what “fetal heartbeat” means and asking the court to suspend the abortion ban while that clarification is being decided.
“That failure to answer this question leaves Respondents — the only abortion providers in the state — in an untenable position,” the plaintiffs wrote.
“Faced with the specter of the severe criminal and civil penalties the Act imposes on anyone performing an abortion in violation of the ban… Respondents had no choice but to stop providing abortion services to South Carolinians whose pregnancies have progressed past approximately six weeks,” they continued.
The portion of the court’s ruling in question also drew criticism from Chief Justice Donald Beatty, who wrote in dissent: “[The opinion] does not resolve the anomaly appearing on the face of the legislation regarding the timing of the ‘fetal heartbeat’ ban.”
Specifically, the law defines a fetal heartbeat as “cardiac activity, or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart, within the gestational sac.” Abortion providers and medical experts argue that that definition is more in line with the formation of the heart at 18-20 weeks, instead of the widely understood six-week ban in the law.
South Carolina Republicans expect legal challenges to the law to continue.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Planned Parenthood keeps fighting,” state Senate Majority Leader A. Shane Massey said Wednesday, adding that the law is “really very clear.”
Beatty was the only justice to go against the law’s constitutionality.
“Concluding the 2023 act is valid while remaining silent as to its timing — and without clearly rejecting any implication that it is reinstating what is at least perceived to be, effectively, a six-week ban — is concerning to me,” he wrote in his dissent. “The fear of political retribution in this matter is palpable.”
Medical experts have also cast doubt on the definitions included in the bill’s text.
“These medical definitions they tried to put forward are legislative and put forward by people who don’t practice medicine,” Dr. Dawn Bingham, chairwoman of the South Carolina section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told The Associated Press. “This language creates uncertainty among medical providers who may be unsure they’re legally allowed to terminate a pregnancy.”
South Carolina is one of three states that have passed so-called “heartbeat bills,” the others being Georgia and Ohio. The Ohio measure is being challenged in counts and is not in effect.
Florida also passed a six-week abortion ban this year, which is pending based on legal challenges to other state anti-abortion laws.
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