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South Carolina Supreme Court strikes down state abortion ban

A seated man in a suit smiles and holds up papers as people clap behind him.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster holds up a bill banning almost all abortions in the state after he signed it into law in February 2021. The state’s high court ruled Thursday that the restrictions violate the state constitution’s right to privacy.
(Jeffrey Collins / Associated Press)
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The South Carolina Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a ban on abortion after cardiac activity is detected — typically around six weeks — ruling the restriction violates the state constitution’s right to privacy.

The decision comes nearly two years after Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed the measure into law. The ban, which included exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest or pregnancies that endangered the patient’s life, drew lawsuits almost immediately. Since then, legal challenges have made their way through both state and federal courts.

“The State unquestionably has the authority to limit the right of privacy that protects women from state interference with her decision, but any such limitation must be reasonable and it must be meaningful in that the time frames imposed must afford a woman sufficient time to determine she is pregnant and to take reasonable steps to terminate that pregnancy,” Justice Kaye Hearn wrote in the majority opinion. “Six weeks is, quite simply, not a reasonable period of time for these two things to occur, and therefore the Act violates our state Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable invasions of privacy.”

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South Carolina now bars most abortions at 20 weeks.

Varying orders have given the law’s supporters and opponents both cause for celebration and dismay. Those seeking abortions in the state have seen the legal window expand to the previous limit of 20 weeks before returning to latest restrictions and back again.

In a historic reversal, the Supreme Court strikes down a half-century of nationwide abortion rights in the U.S.

June 24, 2022

Federal courts had previously suspended the law. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade on June 24, 2022, allowed the restrictions to take place — for just a brief period. The state Supreme Court temporarily blocked it in August as the justices considered a new challenge.

The high court’s momentous decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization set off a flurry of activity at the state level. Republican-dominated states moved forward with new restrictions while abortion rights’ advocates sought additional safeguards. With federal abortion protections gone, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic sued in July under the South Carolina constitution’s right to privacy. Other states have seen challenges to restrictions as a matter of religious freedom.

In South Carolina, lawyers representing the state Legislature have argued that the right to privacy should be interpreted narrowly. During oral arguments in October, they argued historical context suggests lawmakers intended to protect against searches and seizures when they ratified the right in 1971. Planned Parenthood attorneys representing the challengers have said the right to privacy encompasses abortion. They argued previous state Supreme Court decisions already extended the right to bodily autonomy.

The justices’ limited ruling left the door open for future changes. The state House and Senate failed to agree on additional restrictions during this past summer’s special session on abortion. Still, a small but growing group of conservative lawmakers have vowed to push that envelope once more this legislative session — despite some Republican leaders’ insistence no agreement is possible.

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson applauded the ruling Thursday, saying in a statement to the Associated Press that it amounted to “a voice of reason and sanity to temper the Republicans’ legislative actions to strip rights away from women and doctors.”

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Republican South Carolina House Speaker G. Murrell Smith Jr., wrote in a series of tweets that the state justices “followed the path of the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade by creating a constitutional right to an abortion where none exists.” Smith added the decision failed to respect the separation of powers.

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