What defines a heartbeat? Judge hears arguments in South Carolina abortion case

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Ban on abortions After about six weeks, before many women even knew they were pregnant, she returned to court Thursday with Planned Parenthood and the state arguing over what could be two different ways to define a heartbeat in law.

Even the state Supreme Court decides who confirmed the new law in August noted that there appear to be two definitions of “fetal heartbeat,” which ends the window in which someone can seek an abortion. They wrote that the question would be asked “for another day.”

This day arrived Thursday as District Judge Daniel Coble considered Planned Parenthood's request to block the new law until the courts could rule on the definitions in its lawsuit and the state's request to dismiss the lawsuit. He said he would try to govern in a few weeks. Whatever Coble decides, his sentence will face months, if not years, of appeals.

Planned Parenthood said in court filings that in the first five months the new lawThree-quarters of women seeking abortions were turned away because their pregnancies were too advanced, and 86% of those three-quarters would have been able to have the procedure had the law allowed abortions up to nine weeks.

The state maintains that the fetal heartbeat is the moment an ultrasound detects heart activity, usually about six weeks after conception. But the law also mentions when the large parts of the heart come together and “repeated rhythmic contraction” begins, which often takes about nine weeks.

Prosecutors are turning Planned Parenthood's argument on its head, arguing that the organization has said more than 300 times that the law prohibits abortions after six weeks a successful challenge This prompted the General Assembly to change the law and led to the second unsuccessful challenge. They said the group only changed its mind after the second loss.

Grayson Lambert, a lawyer for South Carolina's governor, said the state's current law has long held that judges must give maximum weight to lawmakers' intentions in disagreements over the interpretation of the law. All that was discussed during the General Assembly's abortion debate was six weeks, he said.

“The electrical impulses that produce that familiar hissing sound in ultrasound – that’s what the General Assembly is talking about,” Lambert said.

However, Planned Parenthood attorney Kyla Eastling said that because of criminal penalties, the organization needed to interpret the new law as conservatively as possible to protect doctors from criminal penalties.

“Doctors are not the ones making the law,” Eastling said. “They’re just trying to understand it.”

South Carolina Law is spelled slightly differently than all other states with a similarly timed ban, and slight differences in punctuation mean the ban doesn't take effect until the heart chambers and heart valves come together, Eastling argued.

“To put it simply, you can’t have a heartbeat until you have a heart,” Eastling said.

Since the US Supreme Court overthrew Roe v. calf With nationwide abortion rights ending in 2022, most Republican-controlled states have begun enforcing new bans or restrictions, and most Democratic-dominated states have sought to protect abortion access.

Currently, 14 states enforce abortion bans at all stages of pregnancy, with few exceptions, and South Carolina and two other states have abortion bans that go into effect around the sixth week of pregnancy. This week, Arizona enacted a law to repeal a Civil War-era ban on almost all abortions.

In the South Carolina courtroom Thursday was Taylor Shelton, the woman who filed the lawsuit along with Planned Parenthood. She said her gynecologist was dismissive when she first contacted the office in September about options to end her unplanned pregnancy. Facing up to two years in prison for violating the ban, health care providers took a cautious approach.

Shelton's body had bent her intrauterine device, causing pain, and she was stunned to find out she was pregnant two days after missing her period, which she regularly monitored.

Because doctors in South Carolina weren't sure how to define a heartbeat, she ended up in North Carolina and drove hours to two appointments to get an abortion.

“The lack of clarity in this law forces people like me to navigate a complicated system that does not prioritize our well-being and autonomy,” Shelton said as she read a statement outside court, her hands lightly trembled.

Shelton said she only had about 12 days to meet the deadline set by South Carolina law, although she realized almost immediately that she might be pregnant. She also had the resources and time to seek government help.

“Today I stand before you angry – angry at a system that seeks to control our bodies and dictate our decisions,” Shelton said. “But I also remain determined, driven by the belief that no one should have to endure what I went through. We deserve better. We deserve clear, unambiguous laws.”

Anna Harden

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