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A South Carolina woman is challenging the state's sixth-week abortion ban

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In South Carolina, a woman forced to travel out of state for an abortion has joined Planned Parenthood in a lawsuit seeking to clarify the state's abortion ban. Lawmakers say the ban begins at six weeks, once cardiac activity is detected. But the suit argues it should start at least three weeks later and could have made a difference for the plaintiff. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen reports.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Taylor Shelton says she isn't ready to be a mother. She's in her 20s and uses birth control - an intrauterine device, or IUD, said to be more than 99% effective. She had just gotten the device checked by a doctor when she missed her period in September.

TAYLOR SHELTON: When I found out I was pregnant, I was shocked, to say the least.

HANSEN: Shelton and her boyfriend wanted an abortion. But South Carolina's fetal heartbeat ban had just taken effect.

SHELTON: I thought, luckily, I'm under six weeks. This shouldn't be hard. And then it turned out to be unbelievably hard.

HANSEN: First, Shelton called her gynecologist. She asked the receptionist for help getting an abortion.

SHELTON: Do you know where I can get the help? Do you have any resources for me? And each answer from her was no, no, no.

HANSEN: Next, Shelton called Planned Parenthood, which has two abortion clinics in the state. But the ban had left them overwhelmed. They could not see Shelton before six weeks. So she searched the internet and found a pregnancy center in North Carolina, four hours away. That state has a 12-week ban, requiring two appointments - one for an ultrasound, the second for an abortion. Shelton says the center told her they could see her quickly and perform the ultrasound. But when she arrived with her mother, she says they tried to convince her not to have an abortion.

SHELTON: It was anything that they could prevent me from the idea of an abortion. An abortion is bad.

HANSEN: When Shelton told the counselor she wanted an abortion, she says the center would no longer give her an ultrasound.

SHELTON: And it turns out that this place was a fake abortion clinic, an anti-abortion clinic.

HANSEN: Shelton left in tears. She finally connected with Planned Parenthood in North Carolina. And after two more trips, Shelton got an abortion at six weeks, four days.

SHELTON: I don't know. It's just - it's so surreal. Like, I could have never seen this happening to me. And now that it has, I mean, I'm just, like, my blood is boiling about it.

HANSEN: Shelton is suing the state with Planned Parenthood. Vicki Ringer works for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.

VICKI RINGER: All they've done is inflict cruel and unusual punishment on women and girls who are just trying to get health care.

HANSEN: Ringer calls South Carolina's abortion ban contradictory and vague, leaving health care providers who can face prison time scared and patients vulnerable. The ban defines a fetal heartbeat as, quote, "cardiac activity or steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac." Ringer says, that definition describes two different points in pregnancy - one, an electrical impulse at roughly six weeks; the other, an actual heart, which she says does not begin to form until at least nine weeks.

RINGER: This is what happens when you have legislators that try to practice medicine.

HANSEN: It's not the first time the ban's language has been called into question. Even as the state Supreme Court upheld the law six months ago, its chief justice noted the fetal heartbeat definition is ambiguous. The plaintiffs want a state court to clarify it and allow abortions up to at least nine weeks. Planned Parenthood says they could then provide abortions for nearly 50% of women who need them, instead of 10%. Before the ban, Republican lawmakers argued abortion rates were on the rise because women facing strict laws across the South sought the procedure here. State Senator Shane Massey said this last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANE MASSEY: South Carolina has become an abortion destination state.

HANSEN: Shelton says the ban forced her to leave her home state.

SHELTON: The government, they want us to be responsible. Well, I'm telling you right now, I had birth control. I tracked my period. I took the pregnancy test as soon as possible. And even then, I could not figure out how to get this procedure done.

HANSEN: The state attorney general says his office has defended the law in the past and will continue to do so.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Charleston, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.