Impact of abortion ruling on Florida law unclear

By Margie Menzel

The News Service of Florida

Florida abortion providers are breathing sighs of relief following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday striking down a Texas law that would have greatly limited access to legal abortion in that state.

The Texas law would have required doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the clinics where they perform abortions and clinics to meet the same standards as walk-in surgical centers.

By a 5-3 vote, the justices found that neither of the provisions “offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access (to abortion) that each imposes,” and that each constitutes an “undue burden” on access to the procedure, violating the U.S. Constitution.

“This decision is certainly historic,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “This is the biggest case since Roe v. Wade in terms of its impact on access to a safe and legal procedure.”

But in Florida, supporters of recent laws requiring more stringent standards for abortion providers say the high court ruling should have no impact.

Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Colleen Burton, both Lakeland Republicans, sponsored House Bill 1411, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in March. On Monday, they said the new Florida law is different from the Texas statute at issue in the Supreme Court case. Scott’s office and legislative leaders are reviewing the ruling.

Among its provisions, the new Florida law requires clinics that perform first-trimester abortions to have patient-transfer agreements with nearby hospitals, or for clinic doctors to have admitting privileges nearby. Stargel noted that the law does not include Texas’ requirement that a doctor have admitting privileges within 30 miles of an abortion clinic.

“We have reasonable proximity, which is what we’ve had in law for a very long time with regards to all other clinics, and we’re doing abortion clinics the same way,” she said.

Although the Florida law takes effect Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle on Wednesday will hear a challenge from Planned Parenthood aimed at blocking three parts of the law.

That complaint, in part, targets a section of the law that seeks to prevent state agencies, local governments and Medicaid managed-care plans from contracting with organizations, like Planned Parenthood, that own, operate or are affiliated with clinics that perform elective abortions. The complaint also challenges a provision that would require the state Agency for Health Care Administration to inspect at least 50 percent of abortion-clinic patient records each year. And it challenges a change to the way the state determines trimesters of pregnancy.

Burton, the House sponsor of HB 1411, said the three provisions had nothing to do with the Texas law. And while opponents contend the challenged provisions are medically unnecessary, Burton said she was only concerned with protecting women’s health and safety.

Tallahassee attorney Rick Johnson, local co-counsel in another challenge to a recent abortion statute, agreed that Monday’s ruling was unlikely to alter Florida law for now. He’s involved with a challenge to a 2015 law, requiring a 24-hour wait before women can obtain an abortion. That case is now before the Florida Supreme Court.

Johnson said the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of protecting access to legal abortion threatened by an “undue burden.” But in Florida, he said, stronger protections are in place — those of privacy.

“We had the intermediate appellate court, the 1st (District Court of Appeal), attempt to apply the federal ‘undue burden’ standard and find that under that standard, the 24-hour waiting period was good enough,” Johnson said. “So if (Monday’s ruling) has any impact, that will be the impact — that some of those courts that were incorrectly applying Florida law will now find that even if they apply federal law, some of those ridiculous restrictions won’t pass muster.”

Monday’s ruling drew a wide range of reactions from political candidates and activists. Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, was dismayed by those who celebrated the ruling.

“In Florida, we have championed policies and programs that promote life and provide resources for women who choose life for their babies,” Gardiner said in a statement. “Photos of people celebrating today’s ruling should disgust anyone who values the health of women and the life of their unborn children.”

Goodhue said Scott and the Legislature are unlikely to back off their efforts to limit abortion in Florida.

“We’ve seen an increase every year in the number of bills filed, but also in the extremist content of their nature,” she said. “So we’ve seen these attacks escalate, and we fully anticipate that we’ll have to continue this fight.”

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