A woman from South Carolina who had to travel out of state for an abortion is suing the state over its six-week abortion ban, claiming that the law is ambiguous and unconstitutional.
The Plaintiff’s Story
Taylor Shelton, a 28-year-old resident of Charleston, found out she was pregnant on September 7, 2023, two days after she missed her period. She was using an intrauterine device (IUD) as a form of contraception, and she had regular menstrual cycles. She did not want to continue the pregnancy, and she contacted her gynecologist for options.
However, her doctor told her that he could not perform an abortion because of South Carolina’s new law that bans most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks of pregnancy. Shelton was told that she would face criminal charges if she tried to get an abortion in the state.
Shelton was shocked and scared. She did not have the financial or emotional resources to raise a child, and she did not want to put her health at risk by carrying an unwanted pregnancy. She decided to travel to Georgia, where she was able to get an abortion on September 10, 2023, at a Planned Parenthood clinic. She had to pay $500 for the procedure, and she missed two days of work.
Shelton felt relieved after the abortion, but she also felt angry and violated by the state’s law. She decided to join a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and its chief medical officer, Dr. Katherine Farris, against the state’s attorney general and the board of medical examiners. The lawsuit seeks to clarify the meaning of “fetal heartbeat” in the law, and to affirm that the ban should not apply until around nine weeks of pregnancy, when the major components of the heart are formed.
The Legal Argument
The lawsuit argues that the state’s law is vague and inconsistent in its definition of “fetal heartbeat”. The law states that “fetal heartbeat” means “cardiac activity, or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart, within the gestational sac”. However, the lawsuit claims that this definition does not match the medical or scientific understanding of a heartbeat, which requires the presence of a heart with chambers, valves, and blood flow.
According to the lawsuit, the cardiac activity that can be detected at six weeks of pregnancy is not a true heartbeat, but rather a flickering of electrical impulses in a group of cells called the cardiac crescent. The lawsuit cites several medical sources and experts to support this claim, and argues that the state’s law is misleading and inaccurate.
The lawsuit also contends that the state’s law violates the state constitution, which guarantees the right to privacy and the right to due process. The lawsuit claims that the law deprives women of their fundamental right to make personal decisions about their reproductive health, and that the law imposes an undue burden on women who seek an abortion. The lawsuit points out that the law does not provide any exceptions for cases of rape, incest, fetal anomalies, or health risks to the woman.
The lawsuit asks the court to interpret the law in favor of the plaintiffs, and to rule that the ban should not apply until around nine weeks of pregnancy, when the heart is fully formed and functional. The lawsuit also asks the court to issue a preliminary injunction to prevent the enforcement of the law until the case is resolved.
The State’s Response
The state’s attorney general, Alan Wilson, has defended the law as a valid expression of the state’s interest in protecting the unborn. He has argued that the law is clear and consistent in its definition of “fetal heartbeat”, and that the law is compatible with the state constitution. He has also challenged the standing of the plaintiffs to sue the state, and the jurisdiction of the court to hear the case.
Wilson has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that the plaintiffs have not suffered any injury or harm from the law, and that the court lacks the authority to review the law. He has also filed a motion to stay the proceedings, pending the outcome of a similar lawsuit in federal court.
The federal lawsuit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups on behalf of several abortion providers in the state. The federal lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the law under the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to abortion until the point of viability, usually around 24 weeks of pregnancy. The federal lawsuit has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge, who issued a preliminary injunction in February 2023. The state has appealed the injunction to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the case is still pending.
The lawsuit filed by Shelton and Planned Parenthood is one of the latest attempts to challenge South Carolina’s six-week abortion ban, which is one of the most restrictive in the nation. The law was passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature and signed by the Republican governor, Henry McMaster, in February 2023. The law was part of a wave of similar laws passed by several states in recent years, aiming to undermine or overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.
The law has had a significant impact on the access and availability of abortion in the state, which already had few abortion providers and many barriers to the procedure. According to Planned Parenthood, the law has forced many women to travel out of state, delay their abortions, or continue their pregnancies against their will. Planned Parenthood estimates that the law has prevented more than 1,000 abortions in the state since it took effect.
The law has also sparked a heated debate over the moral, legal, and scientific issues surrounding abortion, especially in the early stages of pregnancy. The law has divided the public opinion, the medical community, and the religious groups in the state. The law has also attracted national attention, as it reflects the broader political and cultural conflict over abortion rights in the country.
The outcome of the lawsuit filed by Shelton and Planned Parenthood could have significant implications for the future of abortion rights in South Carolina, and potentially in other states as well. The lawsuit could set a precedent for how the state courts interpret and apply the state constitution and the state laws on abortion. The lawsuit could also influence the federal courts, which are expected to rule on the constitutionality of the six-week abortion bans in the near future.
The lawsuit could also affect the lives and health of thousands of women in South Carolina, who may face different options and outcomes depending on the court’s decision. The lawsuit could either uphold or overturn the law, or it could modify the law by changing the definition or the timing of the ban. The lawsuit could either expand or restrict the access and availability of abortion in the state, and either protect or endanger the rights and well-being of women who seek an abortion.