TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s new ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy was ruled unconstitutional Thursday by a judge – a day before it is set to go into effect.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that the restriction clashes with an earlier state Supreme Court ruling, which concluded that abortion is protected by the Florida constitution’s right to privacy.
“Women have a privacy right under the state constitution,” said Cooper, who agreed to issue a temporary injunction, but not fast enough to prevent the 15-week standard from becoming law Friday. Current state law allows most abortions within 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Cooper issued his ruling from the bench, at the end of a two-day hearing. A full written order is expected in the coming days.
The 15-week law also will remain in place once Attorney General Ashley Moody files an anticipated appeal to that injunction order.
“If Floridians are concerned about their ability to access abortion care … I would encourage them to reach out to their local providers and find out their options,” said Whitney White, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who represented Planned Parenthood affiliates in Florida and other plaintiffs in the case.
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Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved the 15-week standard earlier this year and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure in April.
Planned Parenthood affiliates in Florida and allied organizations sued this month to block the law, approved by the Legislature as HB 5. Their attorneys argued that affiliates and their patients would be irreparably harmed by the change.
“There’s no dispute that plaintiffs currently offer abortions after 15 weeks and that they’d be forced to stop that under coercion of the threatened criminal and licensing penalties that HB 5 carries,” said Whitney White, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, representing Planned Parenthood.
During earlier testimony, Dr. Shelly Tien of Jacksonville, said, “Abortion is a very common procedure. It’s a very safe procedure.”
Tien, among the plaintiffs in the case, is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist who performs abortions with Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida. She also travels around the country to provide abortions in regions with limited access.
State defends 15-week law
Attorneys for the state had argued that the stricter standard would be safer for women by forcing more to seek earlier abortions. Testimony relying on state records showed that 96.4% of abortions in Florida in 2019 occurred before the thirteenth week of pregnancy.
A Florida Atlantic University poll in May found that 67% of Floridians think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
But the state presented witnesses who argued that the tighter restriction also would prevent fetal pain and conscious suffering, which they claimed was present in fetuses. The state’s witnesses were University of Utah neurobiologist Maureen Condic and Dr. Ingrid Skop, director of medical affairs at the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute.
Deputy Attorney General James Percival urged Cooper on Thursday not to block the law, saying that if any such pain existed, “erring on the side of caution is something the court should do.”
But Percival also argued, “Some women will simply schedule their abortions earlier, resulting in a procedure with a lower complication rate.”
Florida’s new abortion law has gained heightened attention since the U.S. Supreme Court last Friday overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, stripping away federal constitutional protections for abortion and potentially leading to abortion bans in half the states.
In their 6-3 ruling, justices upheld Mississippi’s 15-week abortion limit, which is identical to the new Florida measure.
But Florida’s constitutional right to privacy, approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1980, adds certain safeguards that Planned Parenthood and others argue should halt the new 15-week ban.
What’s coming next?
DeSantis and Republican leaders in the Legislature haven’t spoken about what could happen next in Florida, now that federal justices have given states authority to enact event stricter abortion laws, or outright bans.
A separate lawsuit also has been filed in Leon County Circuit Court by a South Florida synagogue, L’Dor-Va-Dor, that alleges the 15-week restriction violates religious freedom.
DeSantis in his comments following the Supreme Court ruling said his focus is on defending the state’s new restriction “against state court challenges,” hinting he is not eager to call lawmakers back into special session to enact tougher limits.
Abortion opponents in Florida say they expect DeSantis to propose tighter restrictions on the procedure after the November elections.
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said he sees as a possibility the governor proposing a six-week ban on abortions, similar to the so-called fetal heartbeat law which Georgia is now trying to put in place.
The political implications of the ruling heading toward this fall’s elections also emerged quickly. Democrat Charlie Crist, who is vying with Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried for their party’s nomination to challenge DeSantis for governor, hailed Copper’s decision.
“Today is an important victory for freedom across the Sunshine State and Florida’s constitutional right to privacy,” Crist said. “The reproductive freedoms of Florida’s women stood strong in the face of Governor DeSantis’s ongoing attempts to strip away their right to make decisions over their bodies.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. Follow him on Twitter at @JKennedyReport