South Carolina’s new all-male highest court reverses course on abortion, upholding strict 6-week ban

August 23, 2023  -COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s new all-male Supreme Court reversed course on abortion Wednesday, upholding a law banning most such procedures except in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.

The continued erosion of legal abortion access across the U.S. South comes after Republican state lawmakers replaced the lone woman on the court, Justice Kaye Hearn, who reached the state’s mandatory retirement age.

The 4-1 ruling departs from the court’s own decision months earlier striking down a similar ban that the Republican-led Legislature passed in 2021. The latest ban takes effect immediately.

Writing for the new majority, Justice John Kittredge acknowledged that the 2023 law also infringes on “a woman’s right of privacy and bodily autonomy,” but said the state Legislature reasonably determined this time around that those interests don’t outweigh “the interest of the unborn child to live.”

“As a Court, unless we can say that the balance struck by the Legislature was unreasonable as a matter of law, we must uphold the Act,” Kittredge wrote.

Kittredge wrote that “we leave for another day” a determination on what the law’s language means for when exactly during a pregnancy the ban should begin, likely forecasting another long court fight on that question.

Chief Justice Donald Beatty provided the lone dissent, arguing that the 2023 law is nearly identical, with definitions for terms including “fetal heartbeat” and “conception” that provide no clarity on when the ban begins, exposing doctors to criminal charges if law enforcement disagrees with their expertise.

The Planned Parenthood South Atlantic clinic in Columbia had served only a “handful” of the roughly 30 patients scheduled for abortions Wednesday when the ruling came down, according to Dr. Katherine Farris, the group’s chief medical officer. The center — one of three clinics in the state — has paused abortions while officials work to understand the ruling’s implications.

Hearn wrote the majority’s lead opinion in January striking down the ban as a violation of the state constitution’s right to privacy. She then reached the court’s mandatory retirement age, enabling the GOP-led Legislature to put Gary Hill on what is now the nation’s only state Supreme Court with an entirely male bench.

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