The South Carolina Senate floor will more closely resemble an ideological battlefield in January when the newest weapon in the clash over abortion hits the floor for debate.
The legislation, known colloquially as the fetal heartbeat bill, would outlaw most abortions of fetuses that are at least six weeks old — the stage at which modern technology can detect a fetal heartbeat.
Many supporters of the bill acknowledge it is unconstitutional. The heartbeat bill wasn’t designed to run unopposed through the General Assembly and unnoticed by federal courts — it was intended for just the opposite.
“We’re moving forward to challenge Roe v. Wade,” said Holly Gatling, executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life. “We want this to go to the Supreme Court.”
Gatling and other supporters of the measure hope the bill will end up mired in court battles, similar to a handful of heartbeat bills that already have passed in their respective state legislatures. Once engaged in a legal conflict, the bill’s backers could potentially appeal court rulings up to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the bill could jeopardize the precedent set by Roe v. Wade in 1973 that effectively legalized abortion nationwide. A reversal from the Supreme Court would free states across the country to restrict access to abortions.
Kirk Randazzo, chairman of the political science department at UofSC, said the appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court leave the bench more solidly conservative than it has been in the 46 years since Roe v. Wade — mobilizing anti-abortion activists to author a wave of fetal heartbeat bills.
“It just takes one case to potentially overturn Roe,” said Randazzo. “I think there is a new round of hope that, yes, now is the time to get Roe overturned.”
However, all battles have costs, and strategically pushing forward an admittedly unconstitutional bill could entail fiscal and political consequences. If the bill survives the state Senate and reaches the courts, Randazzo notes the legal war of attrition could cost South Carolina “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.” And if the courts eventually strike the bill down, that financial drain would be a hard-to-explain cost.
But what if the strategy works? Some believe it could undermine the authority of the Supreme Court.
“Roe versus Wade has been on the books for decades,” said Randazzo. “And to simply throw out that precedent I think would put this country in such turmoil.”
Roe v. Wade’s ruling was affirmed and bolstered by Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. That case’s ruling firmly established two legal standards for abortion-related laws. First, states can’t pass laws that place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions, like laws that outlaw abortion clinics. Second, the undue burden clause applies until fetuses reach “fetal viability,” meaning they can survive outside the womb. The fetal heartbeat bill violates both of these standards, and some fear that a reversal would diminish the legal weight of future court precedents.
“That level of uncertainty would create tremendous problems throughout the country,” Randazzo said.
Despite these potential consequences, supporters of the bill remain staunch. They feel the fetal heartbeat bill conveys a basic right to life — and that the fight for that right merits the fiscal and political prices.
“We don’t send someone with a heartbeat to the morgue,” said Gatling. “It’s time now to say that when someone has a heartbeat, whether born or unborn, then that life deserves to be protected.”
However, the opposition is also mobilizing. Pro-abortion activists feel that if the fetal heartbeat bill becomes law, it would infringe on liberties that women fought to gain for decades.
“It would really hurt me because it would make me feel that women’s choices are being limited (and) are being controlled by the government,” said Sloan Wilson, president of Planned Parenthood Generation Action at UofSC. “At the end of the day, I don’t think laws should govern your personal morality.”
The fetal heartbeat bill is just the newest weapon in a battle that has raged in the U.S. for well over a century. And even if that weapon should fail, the battle will likely continue to rage long afterward.
“We will not give up until this heinous and unjust law towards the unborn members of our human family is reversed,” said Gatling.