South Carolina woman sues to clarify state’s ‘heartbeat’ abortion ban

A South Carolina woman who said she was forced to travel out of state for an abortion due to a law banning the procedure after the detection of a “fetal heartbeat” is asking a court to clarify whether that milestone occurs at six weeks or nine weeks of pregnancy.

In a lawsuit filed in state circuit court Monday, Taylor Shelton and Planned Parenthood South Atlantic’s chief medical officer Katherine Farris argued the court should interpret the law to mean nine weeks.

The South Carolina Supreme Court last summer upheld the ban after striking down a similar version earlier in the year. The justices later declined to take up Planned Parenthood’s request to clarify how far along in a pregnancy an abortion can be legally performed.

In upholding the ban, the state Supreme Court majority wrote they were leaving “for another day” a decision on when specifically fetal heartbeat can be detected, and whether the definition refers to the point at which a fetal heart has been formed.

The law does not give an exact week at which abortion is banned, instead prohibiting it when a “fetal heartbeat” can be detected. But Republicans in the state Legislature have argued six weeks is the standard definition, and that even Planned Parenthood attorneys have referred to the law using that language.

The lawsuit argues there is ambiguity about whether the state bans abortion at the detection of the earliest embryonic electrical activity, which is usually six weeks of pregnancy as dated from a patient’s last menstrual period, or at the point when the heart forms, after approximately nine weeks of pregnancy.

Absent clarification, the lawsuit argues that providers have been forced to assume the ban applies at no later than six weeks.

According to the lawsuit, Shelton found out she was pregnant when she was about four weeks along, early enough to qualify under the six-week interpretation of the ban.

But she was unable to get an appointment with one of South Carolina’s abortion providers in the two-week time frame before her pregnancy would have progressed.

As a result, the lawsuit states she was forced to make three trips to North Carolina with more than 20 hours of driving to obtain care. Abortion is legal until 12 weeks of pregnancy in North Carolina but requires two in-person visits before a patient can receive one.

“The entire experience left me angry and quite frankly, traumatized,” Shelton said in a statement. “I want everyone to understand the impact South Carolina’s abortion restrictions and unfair treatment are having on real people, and I hope my story shows how punitive and cruel these abortion bans actually are.”

Between Aug. 23, when the state supreme court upheld the abortion ban, and Wednesday, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic said in the complaint it provided only 303 abortions in South Carolina, and turned away 906 patients — about 75 percent of patients. Of those turned away, about 86 percent were between six and nine weeks pregnant.

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