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Planned Parenthood sues to block South Carolina abortion ban

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South Carolina Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, says a prayer as the House votes on a bill that would ban most abortions in the state on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 in Columbia, S.C. The bill will soon go to the governor. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Planned Parenthood was filing a lawsuit Thursday against a bill that would ban most abortions in South Carolina, effectively stopping the measure from going into effect even as the governor was scheduled to sign it into law at a public statehouse ceremony.

The bill has been one of Republican Gov. Henry McMaster's chief priorities since he took office in 2017. It is similar to abortion restriction laws that a dozen states have previously passed. All are tied up in court. Federal law, which takes precedence over state law, currently allows abortion.

The House passed its bill by a 79-35 vote Wednesday after hours of emotional testimony from both supporters and opponents, and gave the measure final approval on Thursday. Moments after the second vote Thursday, Planned Parenthood announced that it was filing a lawsuit. The “South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act,” like other similar laws currently being challenged, is “blatantly unconstitutional,” said Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.

Supporters of restrictive abortion laws are trying to get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court in the hopes that — with three justices appointed by Republican former President Donald Trump — the court could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision supporting abortion rights. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that abortion is legal until a fetus is viable outside the womb — months after a heartbeat can be detected, Black noted.

State bills to restrict or ban abortion “are plainly absurd,” Black said. “There is no other way around it.”

Planned Parenthood's lawsuit argues that South Carolina’s new law “is in flagrant violation of nearly five decades of settled Supreme Court precedent.” The suit says a high rate of women, especially African Americans, die during or immediately after childbirth in South Carolina. The abortion ban would fall hardest on low-income women, who wouldn't be able to travel to a nearby state where abortion is still permitted, the suit says.

Black said the focus on abortion wastes taxpayer money and ignores a host of other important issues such as health care, unequal treatment of women, and education, Black said.

“If lawmakers are really interested in making lives better, we have a long list of priorities they can focus on,” Black said.

South Carolina's bill requires doctors to perform ultrasounds to check for a heartbeat in the fetus. If one is detected, the abortion can only be performed if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest or the mother’s life is in danger.

The measure would not punish a pregnant woman for getting an illegal abortion, but the person who performed the abortion could be charged with a felony, sentenced up to two years and fined $10,000 if found guilty.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.