The South Carolina all-male Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the state’s brutal six-week abortion ban, decimating access to the procedure in the Southeast.
Governor Henry McMaster signed the bill into law in May in a closed-door session, with no fanfare or warning to doctors who could be about to perform a newly illegal procedure. The measure passed only because McMaster called a special legislative session to weigh the abortion ban.
A lower court temporarily blocked the law in May, but the all-male state Supreme Court ruled 4–1 to overturn the decision, arguing that abortion is not covered by the state constitution’s language about the right to privacy.
Chief Justice Donald Beatty was the sole dissenting vote. He slammed the law for banning abortion after a “fetal heartbeat” is detected. Medical professionals warn that the term “fetal heartbeat” is misleading because six-week-old fetuses only have electrical pulses. There isn’t actually a heart yet, just clusters of cells.
“As such, it is the quintessential example of political gaslighting; attempting to manipulate public opinion and control the reproductive health decisions of women by distorting reality,” Beatty said in his dissenting opinion.
Beatty pointed out that even the Republican legislative majority has admitted that the language about fetal heartbeats is unclear, but they still “undertook no factual review” when arguing in favor of the law.
“Today’s result will surely weigh heavily upon the public and our state’s medical professionals, in light of the threat of criminal penalties placed upon practitioners and the serious harm that could occur to women who could be denied reproductive health care,” Beatty said.
The law bans abortion after six weeks, before many people even know they are pregnant. It technically includes exceptions for rape and incest up to 12 weeks, but health care providers are required to tell patients that they will report the assault to law enforcement. This will likely discourage people from seeking abortions because they don’t want to report the attack.
The measure also prohibits mental health from being considered a medical emergency, so even if someone is diagnosed as suicidal, they still cannot get an abortion. Doctors who break the law face fines and up to two years in prison.
While the law does require child support payments be made from the moment of conception, writer Jessica Valenti pointed out that this is less to help the pregnant person and more to establish that personhood begins at conception.
South Carolina had previously enacted a six-week trigger ban after Roe v. Wade was overturned, but the state Supreme Court blocked that measure in January. The new law was an attempt to circumvent the ruling.
A similar ban had died in the legislature in late April after all the female senators, who span the political spectrum, banded together to filibuster the measure. But Republicans were able to force the current law through when McMaster called the special session.
With this ruling, abortion access is likely to crumble across the Southeast. After Roe was overturned, North Carolina became an abortion haven—until Republicans overrode the governor’s veto in May to pass a 12-week abortion ban. Florida currently has a 15-week abortion ban, which goes before the state Supreme Court in September. If the court upholds that law, then a six-week ban will go into effect. If all three states lose abortion access, it will devastate reproductive health in the region.
This article has been updated.