South Carolina high court will not reconsider abortion ban decision

South Carolina House members debate a new near-total ban on abortion in Columbia, South Carolina

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) - South Carolina's top court on Tuesday declined to reconsider a recent ruling upholding the state's ban on abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which opponents say will prevent women from terminating pregnancies after about six weeks.

The South Carolina Supreme Court on a 4-1 vote rejected a request by Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers to reconsider its Aug. 23 ruling, which they said left unanswered what constitutes a "fetal heartbeat" under the Republican-backed law.

Planned Parenthood said the court had left undecided whether fetal cardiac activity refers to the first regular contractions of heart tissue, which usually occurs around six weeks of pregnancy, or whether it requires the four chambers of the heart to be fully formed - which is usually not until 17 to 20 weeks.

Planned Parenthood urged the court to adopt the latter definition, saying since the court's ruling it had been forced to halt all abortions after about six weeks, which is before many women realize they are pregnant.

In a joint statement, Planned Parenthood and others involved in the case including abortion provider Greenville Women's Clinic expressed disappointment and said they will "continue to fight to restore abortion access for all South Carolinians."

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, in a statement welcomed the decision. "The right to life is foremost and absolutely must be protected and prioritized," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that had legalized abortion nationwide, prompting Republican-led states including South Carolina to ban or severely curtail the ability of women to obtain abortions.

The Republican-led state legislature passed the hotly contested bill in May, mostly along party lines.

The new law came after the state Supreme Court in January struck down a similar abortion law, by a 3-2 vote. Justice Kaye Hearn, who was the court's only female judge and voted against the law, has since retired.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Lincoln Feast)