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SC OB-GYNs are consulting criminal attorneys post-Roe

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Dr. Amy Crockett has spent the past two months researching what would happen if she were charged with a felony. Crockett works as an OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine physician in Greenville, South Carolina.

“Do I get arrested? Is there like a mug shot? Does someone show up at my office and police officers walk in?” said Crockett, who also chairs the South Carolina section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Crockett and many other South Carolina OB-GYNs have been living in legal limbo since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. They’ve grappled with the state’s ever-shifting abortion laws and proposed legislation. They're also worried about criminal charges — and have consulted attorneys.

South Carolina’s “fetal heartbeat” law, which was passed in 2021 and took effect in June, criminalizes doctors who perform abortions after around six weeks, with a few exceptions. Under the law, physicians could face a $10,000 fine and up to two years in prison. The state Supreme Court temporarily blocked the measure on Aug. 17 but OB-GYNs are still confused and worried.

“People will say, ‘Well, there’s not really political will to put a doctor in jail. You shouldn’t worry about it,’” Crockett said. “But like, I don’t know. Maybe there is? Nobody knows the answer to that.”

Angela, another South Carolina OB-GYN, said she recently overheard two colleagues “joking about whether they were ‘prison-ready.’” (WFAE isn’t using Angela’s full name because she’s afraid of possible prosecution.)

Angela said she has made many calls to lawyers in recent months — more than ever before in her 15-year career. She said she would ask the attorneys, “Is this patient sick enough to legally justify an abortion?” Sometimes, Angela said, the answer was no.

“We have definitely referred patients that we thought were truly sick — but not sick enough,” Angela said. “We have delayed care for other patients until they developed signs that they were sick enough for everyone to feel confident that they met the legal exception definition in the law.”

With the heartbeat law blocked, abortions in South Carolina are now legal again for up to 20 weeks, though state lawmakers have considered a measure in recent weeks that would ban the procedure in nearly all cases.

The state Senate on Thursday entered the second day of contentious debate over the bill after senators sparred on the measure for more than eight hours Wednesday. The bill, like the “fetal heartbeat” law, as of Thursday afternoon included a provision that would criminalize doctors who perform abortions outside of certain exceptions. Republican senators who supported the bill — all men — on Wednesday received pushback from their female Republican colleagues.

Sen. Sandy Senn of Charleston said she was “sickened” by the discussion in the Senate’s Medical Affairs Committee Tuesday.

“A woman who is hell-bent to have an abortion is going to have an abortion, despite what this legislature says,” Senn said. “It may be messy but she’s going to get it done. We ‘little ladies’ can take care of ourselves.”

As for Angela, the OB-GYN said stricter abortion measures and fear of criminal prosecution may eventually force her to move with her family out of state.

“To have to have conversations with lawyers where you’re weighing the possibility of being labeled or targeted as a felon for providing care that … yesterday was acceptable and legal, it’s just hard to align those things in your mind,” Angela said.

She added, choking up: “It’s hard to think about leaving. But yeah, I do.”

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Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literture and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. In her free time, Claire likes listening to podcasts and trying out new recipes.