Judge Upholds South Carolina’s 6-Week Abortion Ban Amid Heartbeat Definition Dispute


A South Carolina state judge has ruled that the state can continue to enforce a ban on most abortions around six weeks after conception, despite ongoing debates over the legal definition of a heartbeat.

Planned Parenthood had requested the law be suspended while courts examine its wording, which includes multiple definitions of when cardiac activity starts.

These definitions could extend the permissible period for abortions beyond the current six-week limit specified by the 2023 law.

The law prohibits abortions after an ultrasound detects “cardiac activity, or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart, within the gestational sac.”

This definition is generally interpreted to mean around six weeks after the last menstrual period. However, some interpretations suggest it could mean when a heart has formed, which medical experts say occurs around nine weeks.

The South Carolina Supreme Court noted these differing definitions when it upheld the law last year, indicating that resolving this issue would be addressed in the future.

In his ruling released Thursday, Circuit Judge Daniel Coble cited the state’s legal precedent, which prioritizes lawmakers’ intent in cases of ambiguous law interpretation. Coble noted that legislators, previous court rulings, and even Planned Parenthood have consistently referenced a six-week standard.

The original six-week ban was overturned by the state Supreme Court, but with a new justice and minor legal adjustments, the high court upheld the revised version last August.

Judge Coble emphasized that legislative history did not support any timeframe other than six weeks, pointing out numerous instances where lawmakers referred to the legislation as a six-week ban during debates.

Although Coble’s decision rejects a temporary suspension of the law, it is not the final ruling. Planned Parenthood is expected to appeal, arguing that the differing definitions of a heartbeat render the law too vague to be constitutional.

For now, South Carolina’s ban on abortions after six weeks remains in effect, with exceptions for cases of rape or incest, severe fetal abnormalities, or risks to the mother’s health.

According to Planned Parenthood, in the first five months after the new law took effect, three-quarters of women seeking abortions were turned away due to their pregnancies being too far along. Of those turned away, 86% could have undergone the procedure if the law permitted abortions up to nine weeks.

“Life will continue to be protected in South Carolina, and the governor will continue his fight to protect it,” said Brandon Charochak, spokesman for Republican Governor Henry McMaster, following Thursday’s ruling.

Judge Coble’s ruling also highlighted further ambiguities in the law’s language that may be contested in future appeals. The law refers to a “fetal heartbeat,” yet many experts consider an embryo to be a fetus only after about 10 weeks of development.

“The only point of this line of argument that this Court is making is to illustrate that while Plaintiffs claim the definition of ‘fetal heartbeat’ clearly indicates the nine-week time frame, this definition is in fact ambiguous. If the definition were as clear as Plaintiffs claim, then this case would be far simpler than it is,” Coble wrote.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, removing the federal protection for abortion rights, most Republican-controlled states have enacted new bans or restrictions, while Democrat-dominated states have sought to preserve access to abortion.

Currently, 14 states enforce total abortion bans with limited exceptions, and South Carolina, along with two other states, has a ban that begins around six weeks into pregnancy.

The specific language of South Carolina’s law opened the door for the lawsuit filed by Taylor Shelton and Planned Parenthood. Shelton sought medical attention for pain from her intrauterine device and was surprised to find she was pregnant just two days after missing her period. Due to uncertainty about the definition of a heartbeat and fear of criminal charges, doctors in South Carolina could not assure her she was within six weeks, forcing her to travel to North Carolina for the procedure.

“Today I stand before you angry — angry at a system that seeks to control our bodies and dictate our choices,” Shelton said after the May 4 hearing. “But I also stand determined, fueled by the conviction that no one should endure what I went through. We deserve better. We deserve clear, unequivocal laws.”