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Law & the Courts

Federal Judge Blocks South Carolina’s Heartbeat Bill

(Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

A federal judge has blocked a pro-life law in South Carolina that prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which usually takes place around six weeks into pregnancy.

Late last week, Judge Mary Geiger Lewis granted a preliminary injunction blocking the bill, siding with plaintiffs who challenged the law. Immediately after the law took effect, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and a local South Carolina abortion clinic sued the state, arguing that the law violates women’s constitutional right to abortion.

Shortly after Republican governor Henry McMaster signed the bill into law last month, the same judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent it from taking effect while she reviewed the arguments from challengers. Now she has formally issued a preliminary injunction against it, a decision that the state is likely to appeal.

“This state is overwhelmingly in favor of that bill, and we will do whatever it takes — however long it takes — to see that the right to life is protected in South Carolina,” McMaster tweeted on Friday in response to the decision.

In her order blocking the bill, Lewis argued that the plaintiffs would likely succeed in claiming that the heartbeat bill is unconstitutional, and she asserted that “plaintiffs’ patients are likely to suffer irreparable injury absent a preliminary injunction.”

When South Carolina passed the bill in mid February, it became one of about a dozen states to prohibit abortion after the fetal heartbeat begins. In 2019, several pro-life states including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee all enacted forms of a heartbeat bill.

Thus far, none of those bills have been allowed to stand, as challenges from abortion-rights groups have found support in federal courts from judges who argue that they conflict with existing abortion jurisprudence. Supporters of these laws believe that they might someday serve as a vehicle for challenging Roe v. Wade and subsequent abortion decisions at the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, pro-lifers hope that debates over heartbeat bills will bring public attention to the fact that an unborn child’s heartbeat begins, and can be detected, so early in pregnancy. In fact, some of the most interesting conflicts in the abortion debate over the last few years have emerged in response to heartbeat bills, as opponents of the legislation attempt to downplay the reality of fetal heartbeats.

In 2019, when a number of states enacted heartbeat bills, several major media outlets ran articles insisting that the bills “get the science of heartbeats wrong.” One abortionist insisted, in opposition to heartbeat bills, that is more technically correct to refer to the heartbeat in question as “fetal pole cardiac activity.”

Other outlets preferred the dehumanizing phrase “embryonic pulsing,” dismissing the fetal heartbeat entirely on the advice of medical experts who pointed out that the fetus at that stage of gestation doesn’t have “any kind of cardiovascular system.”

While heartbeat bills will likely continue to meet with opposition in federal court, watching opponents try to explain away the reality of the unborn child as a distinct, living human being is a pro-life victory in itself.


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