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South Carolina top court appears open to upholding new abortion ban

South Carolina top court appears open to upholding new abortion ban © Reuters. A pack of Mifeprex pills, used to terminate early pregnancies, is displayed in this picture illustration taken May 11, 2022. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs/Illustration/File photo

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – South Carolina’s highest court on Tuesday appeared open to upholding a new state law banning abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, months after it blocked a similar ban.

Abortion providers, led by Planned Parenthood, last month won a court order temporarily blocking the law from taking effect until their lawsuit challenging it could be heard by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

That court ruled 3-2 in January that an earlier abortion law violated the right to privacy guaranteed by the state constitution.

However, the author of that ruling, Justice Kaye Hearn, has since retired. South Carolina’s Republican legislature in February replaced Hearn, who was the sole woman on the five-member court, with Justice Garrison Hill.

Both the earlier law and the newer law sought to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That usually happens around six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.

Catherine Humphreville, arguing for the plaintiffs on Tuesday, urged the court to strike down the new law for the same reasons as the older one, saying the state legislature had simply ignored the January ruling. She noted that state senators issued a statement promising the law would “reestablish the ban on abortions” after the court’s “misguided decision.”

The state legislature passed the hotly contested bill in May, mostly along party lines, with the notable exception of the state senate’s five women members – three Republicans, a Democrat and an independent – who all opposed it.

William Lambert, a lawyer for the state, argued that the new law was different from the older one because it included new findings by the legislature.

In particular, he said that the legislature had considered the burden on women’s choices, and concluded that the right to choose should be understood to include the ability to choose birth control or to test for early pregnancy.

Justice John Few, who had voted against the earlier law, seemed open to that argument.

“I think it’s a valid notion that the state, as part of its policy judgment can say, we want you to start thinking about your choices early,” he said.

Justice John Kittredge, who had voted to uphold the earlier law, also said that the court was “not locked in” to its earlier decision.

Abortions are currently allowed in South Carolina through the first 22 weeks of pregnancy, one of the most permissive abortion laws in the region.

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