'Something needs to change.' Woman denied abortion in South Carolina challenges ban

Over two dozen abortion-rights supporters attend a rally outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C., on Aug. 23, 2023. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled to uphold a law banning most abortions except those in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.
Over two dozen abortion-rights supporters attend a rally outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C., on Aug. 23, 2023. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled to uphold a law banning most abortions except those in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.
James Pollard/AP

Taylor Shelton said she isn't ready to be a mother. She'd been using birth control for years — an intrauterine device (IUD), which is said to be more than 99 percent effective.

She'd just gotten the device checked by a doctor when she missed her period in September.

"When I found out I was pregnant, I was shocked to say the least," Shelton told NPR.

Shelton and her boyfriend decided together that she would get an abortion. But South Carolina's fetal heartbeat ban had just taken effect.

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"I thought, 'Luckily, I'm under six weeks. This shouldn't be hard,'" said Shelton. "And then it turned out to be unbelievably hard."

Shelton ultimately had to travel out of state to get an abortion.

"It was unnecessary, and it was traumatizing," said Shelton. She's now suing the state, alongside Planned Parenthood, arguing the ban's parameters are vague and make it nearly impossible to get an abortion.

"The government want[s] 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," said Shelton. "And even then, I could not figure out how to get this procedure done."

Abortion-rights advocates held a news conference last May before debate of a bill that would restrict abortions after six weeks.
Abortion-rights advocates held a news conference last May before debate of a bill that would restrict abortions after six weeks.
Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images

Questions persist on when during pregnancy the ban applies

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, most Republican-controlled states have enacted abortion bans of some kind.

In South Carolina, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed an abortion ban after a "fetal heartbeat" is present.

Republican lawmakers at the time argued that South Carolina was becoming "an abortion destination state," as women facing strict bans across the South sought abortions.

The ban defines a "fetal heartbeat" as "cardiac activity, or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart, within the gestational sac."

That has been interpreted as around six weeks of pregnancy, before most women know they are pregnant.

But physicians who specialize in reproductive health have called the "fetal heartbeat" language misleading.

Vicki Ringer, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said the definition describes two different points in pregnancy: an electrical impulse that appears at roughly six weeks and an actual heart, which Ringer said does not begin to form until at least nine weeks.

"This is what happens when you have legislators that try to practice medicine," said Ringer.

It's not the first time the ban's language has been called into question. Even as the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the law six months ago, its chief justice noted that the "fetal heartbeat" definition is ambiguous, writing, "We leave for another day ... the meaning of 'fetal heartbeat.'"

Planned Parenthood and Shelton are asking the state court to clarify the ban and allow abortions up to at least nine weeks.

"Nine weeks will allow about 50 percent of the patients that come to see us [to get an abortion]," said Ringer, adding that Planned Parenthood in South Carolina currently provides abortions to only 10% of those seeking one.

After the lawsuit was filed, the state attorney general said his office has defended the law in the past and will continue to do so.

Ringer said the ambiguity of the ban, coupled with the threat of criminal charges for abortion providers, has led to a chilling effect in the state and has left patients like Shelton vulnerable.

‘My blood is boiling about it’

Shelton said she filed the lawsuit so other women wouldn't have to go through a similar experience.

After learning she was pregnant, she immediately called her gynecologist and asked the receptionist how to get an abortion.

"'Do you know where I can get help?'" Taylor remembers asking. "'Do you have any resources for me?' And each answer was, 'no, no, no.'"

Next, Shelton called Planned Parenthood, which has two clinics that provide abortion in the state. But the ban had left those clinics overwhelmed. They could not see Shelton before six weeks.

Shelton then started to search online and found a pregnancy center in North Carolina, which has a 12-week ban requiring two appointments: one for counseling where an ultrasound is performed and another for the abortion itself.

Shelton said the center told her it could see her quickly and perform the ultrasound.

"My mom came with me. We drove four hours to Charlotte," she said. "The moment I stepped foot in that place, I felt uncomfortable."

She said it felt like a bait-and-switch.

"It was anything that could prevent me from the idea of an abortion, that abortion is bad," said Shelton.

When Shelton insisted she wanted an abortion, she said the center would no longer give her an ultrasound.

"It turns out this place was a fake abortion clinic, an anti-abortion clinic," said Shelton.

Ringer said crisis pregnancy centers are popping up across the southeast, appearing on searches for abortion services but then offering only anti-abortion information when women arrive.

But Shelton was also experiencing pain. She let the counselor know, explaining her IUD was still in place.

"And immediately it was, 'Oh my goodness, you need to go to the hospital. Your baby could be in danger,'" said Shelton. "Not me, but the baby could be in danger."

Shelton left the pregnancy center in tears and immediately called her gynecologist. The doctor removed the IUD, which was bent, and said that this was what was likely causing Shelton's pain.

Shelton finally connected with Planned Parenthood in North Carolina. After two more trips, she got an abortion at six weeks, four days pregnant.

"It's so surreal. I could have never seen this happening to me. And now that it has, I mean, my blood is boiling about it," Shelton said, adding she can't imagine what would have happened if she did not have the support of her family, the means to travel and money for all the appointments.

"I think that my story shows the six-week ban is not enough time to be fair and that something needs to change."

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