Florida House panel gives first approval to tougher rules for abortion clinics

Some clinics say a House plan to toughen licensing standards will force them to close.
Published January 19 2016
Updated January 20 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Some abortion clinics say they may have to close if the state establishes tough new standards that scored their first approval in the Florida House on Tuesday.

Under the legislation (HB 233), abortion clinics in Florida would be held to the same or more stringent licensing standards than surgical centers, including staffing levels and building construction requirements. Supporters say the regulations, which would be determined by the Agency for Health Care Administration, would help protect women who seek out abortions.

"This is a bill that is intended to help raise the standards and to provide a clean and healthy and safe place for these (abortions) to happen," said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami.

The House Health Innovation Subcommittee approved the abortion bill 9-4, with Republicans on the panel supporting it and Democrats opposed. Diaz fielded questions about the legislation on behalf of its sponsor, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, whose wife is expecting their fourth child soon.

Florida is one of several states considering regulating abortion clinics as surgical centers, although many similar laws have been challenged or thrown out by courts.

Opponents argue that setting stricter regulations over clinics is an attempt to shutter some of Florida's 65 licensed clinics and make abortions harder to obtain.

"This is another step in going to where Roe vs. Wade might be legal, but now we're on the state level making it more and more restrictive," said Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortions nationwide. The 43rd anniversary of the ruling is Friday.

Lobbyists for Planned Parenthood said the group might have to close some of its 16 clinics in the state if stricter regulations pass. And they point to Texas, where about 20 clinics closed after a sweeping abortion law that included similar licensing requirements, among others, passed three years ago.

Some antiabortion advocates say closing a few abortion clinics would be a positive outcome of tougher rules.

"Abortion needs to be as restricted as possible, only in a life-and-death situation," said Nathaniel Wilcox with the Christian Family Coalition Florida. "All abortion clinics should be closed, as far as we're concerned."

The measure still has a long way to go. Even if Trujillo's bill clears the House, there is not a sponsor in the Senate. And if the Legislature does pass it, courts could step in.

According to an analysis by the House staff, "This will be a significant increase in regulation of these clinics and will likely be challenged on constitutional grounds."

The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering whether parts of Texas' law are constitutional — including the tougher safety standards that states like Florida are considering.

Even if federal courts don't intervene, strict privacy language in the state Constitution could be the basis for a lawsuit, warned Michelle Richardson, director of public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

"We have the right to be let alone and free from government intrusion," she said.

The ACLU has already sued to stop another abortion-related law in Florida: a measure requiring women to see a doctor 24 hours before having an abortion. Legislators passed the bill and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law last year, but a judge stopped it from going into effect while the case continues.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @michaelauslen.

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