Judge expected to back Florida law requiring abortion waiting period

The Florida Supreme Court in 2017 approved a temporary injunction against the 2015 law.
Hundreds of people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
Hundreds of people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 23, 2022|Updated March 24, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge indicated Wednesday she will uphold a 2015 state law that would require women to wait 24 hours before having abortions, opponents of the law said.

Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey held a hearing on a motion by Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to reject a constitutional challenge to the law. Dempsey had not issued a written ruling Wednesday afternoon.

The Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Scott approved the law, which is aimed at requiring women to wait 24 hours after initial clinic visits before having abortions. The Florida Supreme Court in 2017 approved a temporary injunction against the law, but the fight has continued in lower courts.

A ruling by Dempsey to uphold the law would allow it to move forward and would be part of a series of changes in recent years that have placed further restrictions on abortions. Lawmakers early this month gave final approval to a bill that would prevent physicians from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Related: Florida's 15-week abortion ban heads to DeSantis' desk

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood issued statements Wednesday criticizing the waiting-period law.

“This law is an insult to Floridians and their ability to make their own medical decisions,” Julia Kay, staff attorney for the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement. “When someone has determined that having an abortion is the best decision for them and their family, politicians should not be in the business of putting unnecessary obstacles in their path, but that is exactly what this law does.”

Dempsey scheduled a hearing Wednesday after Moody’s office filed a motion for summary judgment. A full trial has been scheduled for April.

The state’s attorneys argued in court documents that the law built on previous informed-consent requirements, which involve information that women must receive before having abortions. They wrote in the Feb. 8 motion for summary judgment that the 24-hour waiting period would “allow women to process the information received and fully consider what is a life-changing decision.”

“Florida has a compelling interest in promoting informed consent for abortions regardless of the stage of pregnancy, and a 24-hour waiting period is the shortest reasonable time to assure that women will be positioned to consider the required disclosures away from the pressures of a doctor’s office,” the motion said.

But opponents have long argued that the law is designed to make it harder for women to have abortions. They have said, for example, that requiring two clinic visits would place a burden on people who have to travel long distances.

“The court’s decision to allow the mandatory waiting period to take effect is another blow to reproductive freedom in Florida,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement Wednesday. “Courts have already said this law serves no purpose but to undermine patients’ autonomy and impede their personal medical decisions.”

Plaintiffs, including clinic operator Gainesville Woman Care LLC, immediately challenged the law after it passed in 2015. In part, they said it violated a privacy right in the Florida Constitution that has long played a key role in abortion cases.

Then-Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Francis issued a temporary injunction against the law, a move that was later backed by the Supreme Court. The injunction has largely blocked the law.

In 2018, then-Circuit Judge Terry Lewis issued a summary judgment that said the law was unconstitutional. But that decision was overturned in 2019 by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, sending the dispute back to circuit court.

While the Supreme Court in 2017 backed the injunction in a 4-2 decision, the court has become far more conservative during the past three years after the retirements of longtime Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince.

Justice Jorge Labarga is the only member of the majority in the 2017 ruling who remains on the court. Meanwhile, current Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston dissented in 2017 and continue to serve on the court.

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida