UNITED STATES NEWS

South Carolina abortion ban with unclear ‘fetal heartbeat’ definition creates confusion, doctors say

Aug 24, 2023, 9:22 PM

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — When the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld a ban on most abortions this week, the majority wrote that they were leaving “for another day” a decision on when, exactly, the “fetal heartbeat” limit begins during pregnancy. Doctors practicing under the strict law cannot similarly punt on that question.

Physicians say the statute’s unclear guidance is already chilling medical practice at the few abortion clinics that operate in the conservative state. With potential criminal charges hanging in the balance, most abortions are being halted as doctors wrestle with the murky legal definitions.

“These medical definitions they tried to put forward are legislative and put forward by people who don’t practice medicine,” said Dr. Dawn Bingham, chair of the South Carolina section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or AGOC. “This language creates uncertainty among medical providers who may be unsure they’re legally allowed to terminate a pregnancy.”

South Carolina and Georgia are the only two states with such bans on the books. An Ohio court is weighing another one, and a six-week ban is pending in Florida.

In South Carolina, the measure passed by the Republican-dominated General Assembly bans abortion after what it calls a “fetal heartbeat” is identified. The law defines that term as “cardiac activity, or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart, within the gestational sac.” Medical professionals can usually detect cardiac activity around six weeks of pregnancy, which is before most people know they are pregnant.

That language is clinically inaccurate according to medical consensus, which holds that such “cardiac activity” is not a heartbeat and an embryo has not yet become a fetus at that stage. A 2013 University of Leeds study determined that the four clearly defined chambers in the heart that appear from the eighth week of pregnancy remain “a disorganized jumble of tissue” until around the 20th week.

South Carolina’s law requires that providers perform an ultrasound on any patient seeking an abortion, display the images and record a description of any present “fetal heartbeat.” But the justices left legally undecided the question of whether “cardiac activity” and the described “rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart” refer to the same point or two separate points in a pregnancy.

From a medical standpoint, the ACOG says that while electronic impulses signifying “cardiac activity” can be recognized early on, an actual heart is not detectable by ultrasound until roughly 17 to 20 weeks of gestational age.

Charleston-based OB-GYN Jessica Tarleton said the presence of the word “or” between the terms in the law’s language creates two different definitions and is “vague.” It always takes lawyers some time to put together advice following any restrictions on abortion, she added.

“Defining a structure as a heart would put the definition later in pregnancy than earlier when you would see rhythmic contractions of some kind of cardiac structure,” she said.

In his dissent, South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty questioned how doctors and their lawyers could comply with the law without “a determination of this key point.”

State Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, a Republican, dismissed the idea that the definitions lack precise guidelines for medical professionals. He said the state has long required that doctors perform ultrasounds to provide an opportunity for patients to see the images before having an abortion.

“Now it just says if there is cardiac activity that is present on that ultrasound — if you can hear the heart beating — then you can’t perform that abortion,” Massey told reporters Wednesday.

On Thursday, abortion providers filed a petition for a rehearing based on what they called the ambiguity arising from the definition of “fetal heartbeat.” While some South Carolinians will remain eligible for abortions under the law, Planned Parenthood attorney Catherine Humphreville predicts widespread confusion resulting from the ruling.

In the meantime, doctors have been cancelling abortion appointments.

A handful of the 30 or so people scheduled for abortions Wednesday had been served at a Planned Parenthood location in Columbia when the ruling was delivered. The remaining appointments got put on hold, according to Dr. Katherine Farris, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.

The Center for Reproductive Rights reported similar postponements at another clinic upstate, and Farris heard the same from colleagues in hospitals.

Abortion providers who violate the law could face felony charges carrying up to two years in prison and the loss of professional licenses. That threat has them interpreting these types of laws very conservatively, according to Tarleton, meaning many abortions have stopped altogether.

“In the setting of very high penalties,” Farris said, “the only option for providers is to pause as we try to figure this out.”

___

Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report. Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

United States News

(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS...

Associated Press

UN envoy says ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe Hamas committed sexual violence on Oct. 7

The U.N. envoy focusing on sexual violence in conflict said in a new report Monday that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed rape, “sexualized torture,” and other cruel and inhumane treatment of women during its surprise attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7.

59 seconds ago

Former President Donald Trump leaves Manhattan criminal court, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in New York...

Associated Press

Donald Trump’s lawyers fight DA’s request for a gag order in his hush-money criminal case

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s lawyers warned Monday that a gag order sought by New York prosecutors ahead of his March 25 hush-money criminal trial would amount to unconstitutional and unlawful prior restraint on the former president’s free speech rights. Trump’s lawyers urged Judge Juan Manuel Merchan to reject the request, which prosecutors said […]

11 minutes ago

Associated Press

Nebraska’s Legislature and executive branches stake competing claims on state agency oversight

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Barely six months into his term as Nebraska’s attorney general last year, Mike Hilgers released an opinion questioning the legality of offices of inspector general overseeing the state’s prison system and the child services division of the Department of Health and Human Service — two of the state’s largest and most […]

16 minutes ago

Associated Press

Former Twitter executives sue Elon Musk over firings, seek more than $128 million in severance

Former senior executives of Twitter are suing Elon Musk and X Corp., saying they are entitled to a total of more than $128 million in unpaid severance payments. Twitter’s former CEO Parag Agrawal, Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal, Chief Legal Counsel Vijaya Gadde and General Counsel Sean Edgett claim in the lawsuit filed Monday that […]

22 minutes ago

Associated Press

Authorities say man who killed 2 in small Minnesota town didn’t know his victims

CLOQUET, Minn. (AP) — The man who fatally shot a Super 8 hotel clerk and a guest in a small Minnesota town doesn’t appear to have any connection with the victims, authorities said. Cloquet police said Monday that it doesn’t appear that 32-year-old Nicholas Elliot Lenius, of Ramsey, knew either of the people he killed […]

50 minutes ago

Brattleboro Union High School students register to vote during a voter drive at the school, Feb. 14...

Associated Press

What to know about Super Tuesday and why it matters

It’s almost Super Tuesday when voters in 16 states and one territory will cast their ballots in the 2024 presidential primaries.

1 hour ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

...

Sanderson Ford

The best ways to honor our heroes on Veterans Day and give back to the community

Veterans Day is fast approaching and there's no better way to support our veterans than to donate to the Military Assistance Mission.

South Carolina abortion ban with unclear ‘fetal heartbeat’ definition creates confusion, doctors say