Justices consider 24-hour waiting period for abortions

Justices will decide if an injunction blocking a law requiring a 24-hour delay will stand.
The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday morning over whether to keep in place an injunction that has blocked the waiting period from being enforced for most of the past year and a half. [SCOTT KEELER | Times (2015)]
The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday morning over whether to keep in place an injunction that has blocked the waiting period from being enforced for most of the past year and a half. [SCOTT KEELER | Times (2015)]
Published November 1 2016
Updated November 1 2016

TALLAHASSEE — The fate of a controversial law that requires women to see a doctor and wait 24 hours before having an abortion is now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court.

Justices heard arguments Tuesday morning over whether to keep in place an injunction that has blocked the waiting period from being enforced for most of the past year and a half.

A Tallahassee circuit judge agreed to block the law while a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Gainesville abortion clinic moves forward.

The Supreme Court won't yet rule on whether the law is constitutional, but because a lawsuit over constitutionality could take years, the justices' ruling could determine, for years to come, if the 24-hour waiting period goes into effect.

Still, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the state argued in court over how the law impacts a guarantee of privacy in the Florida Constitution that courts have ruled protects women's right to have an abortion if they choose.

"Privacy infringement is apparent as a matter of law because the state is telling a woman that she cannot exercise a fundamental constitutional right for a 24-hour period," said Julia Kaye, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project.

Lawyers for the state argued that state lawmakers were justified in passing the law in 2015.

Society has an interest in people making important decisions after giving them proper consideration, said Denise Harle, the state's deputy solicitor general.

"The waiting period is not because it's a medical procedure," Harle said. "It's a waiting period because it's an irreversible, life-altering decision on the level of other things like marriage, divorce or giving up your child for adoption."

In court, most of the seven justices kept quiet as each side made its case.

Justice Charles Canady asked Kaye if the state Supreme Court ought to step into the case at all.

But Justice Barbara Pariente pushed back hard against the state's arguments, saying that the waiting period is not a "neutral" restriction and that the law came "out of nowhere" without proper justification from the Legislature.

Abortion-rights advocates, too, have argued that the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott interfered in women's personal decisionmaking by passing the waiting period and signing it into law.

"This is political interference by our Legislature in a fundamental right that women have," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

Anti-abortion groups watching oral arguments Tuesday insist that politics played no role. Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network, says she hears from women who say they were "rushed into" having an abortion that they later regret after finding out from a doctor that they were pregnant. The waiting-period law protects them, she said.

"It was not a political law," Olsen said. "It was a law to help the women of Florida to have an informed consent before they terminate a life."

Tuesday's hearing followed the state's decision earlier this year not to appeal a federal judge's ruling in a lawsuit over two unrelated abortion restrictions.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott would not say whether the state plans to keep fighting the 24-hour waiting period lawsuit if the injunction is upheld.

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

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