Judges: Florida's 24-hour waiting period for abortions should be enforced

Published Feb. 27, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Effective immediately, women in Florida will have to wait 24 hours and visit a doctor before having an abortion.

Although the law establishing the waiting period was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott last summer, it was only in effect for a day before an injunction barred it from being enforced. That changed Friday when a three-judge panel lifted the lower court's order.

In a unanimous ruling from the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, judges cited a lack of evidence and the possibility that the wrong legal standard was used to grant an emergency injunction last summer. The appellate judges wrote that the original order by 2nd Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson, was "legally insufficient to justify this injunctive relief."

"In the abortion context as in any other, injunctive relief requires competent, substantial evidence to support the necessary findings of fact," the judges — Bradford Thomas, Susan Kelsey and William Stone —wrote.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the court's decision a "setback." On Friday afternoon, lawyers at the ACLU met to determine the next steps on the injunction, part of a broader lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law which is still pending in a Tallahassee circuit court.

"We're going to use every tool in our arsenal to prevent the Legislature from imposing restrictions on women's health that have nothing to do with health and everything to do with their anti-abortion agenda," Simon said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was pleased with the ruling handed down by the judges, all of whom were appointed by staunchly anti-abortion Govs. Scott and Jeb Bush.

Florida is one of 28 states to establish a waiting period, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research and advocacy group.

Under the law, doctors who skirt the waiting period and perform an abortion could face disciplinary action from the state Board of Medicine and possibly lose their license.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, the main sponsor of the legislation, said the law allows women time to make an "informed decision" before having an abortion.

"I'm absolutely ecstatic that the injunction has been lifted," Sullivan said in a written statement Friday. "This is a huge win for women's health and the ability for women to have a face-to-face consultation with the doctor before the procedure."

Abortion rights activists, however, decry what they describe as a tactic to restrict access to the procedure, particularly among poor women with limited access to transportation.

They also allege the new law is unconstitutional under Florida's strict privacy protections.

The language guaranteeing a right to privacy in the state Constitution has been interpreted by courts to prevent significant restrictions on access to abortions. That's the chief argument in a lawsuit filed by Gainesville-based abortion clinic Bread and Roses Women's Health Center and the ACLU.

"There is harm, and the harm is especially on working women and low-income women," Simon said.

But Sullivan insists the law was carefully written and will be upheld by the courts.

"This was written in such a way that I'm confident it will ultimately be found constitutional, and today is one step closer toward that direction," she said.

Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.