Florida Judge Will Temporarily Block 15-Week Abortion Ban

MIAMI — A Florida law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy violates privacy protections in the State Constitution, a state judge ruled on Thursday, a day before the new restrictions were to take effect.

Judge John C. Cooper of the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Tallahassee ruled from the bench that the law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, will not be enforced for now. Florida currently allows abortions until 24 weeks, making the state a refuge for women seeking the procedure from across Southeastern states with tighter restrictions.

Judge Cooper said he would issue a temporary statewide injunction. It will not be binding until he signs a written order, something the judge said would not happen on Thursday. The ban takes effect at midnight.

Judge Cooper granted the relief sought by Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union after a two-day hearing laid bare the nation’s divisive debate over abortion rights. The hearing began on Monday, three days after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion after nearly 50 years.

The state is expected to appeal Judge Cooper’s ruling. The issue will most likely end up before the Florida Supreme Court, which in the past has cited a privacy amendment that voters wrote into the State Constitution in 1980 to block other abortion restrictions from taking effect. But Mr. DeSantis has reshaped the court following several retirements and made it much more conservative. He appointed three of the court’s seven justices. The other four justices were also appointed by Republican governors.

Similar legal fights are playing out in other states, where various plaintiffs are arguing that their own state constitutions provide specific protections for abortion. On Thursday, a judge in Kentucky temporarily blocked an abortion ban that was triggered by the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade last week. That law, passed in 2019, called for a near total ban on the procedure and had already led clinics to turn patients away.

As in Florida and other states, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that Kentucky’s Constitution protects the right to an abortion. Ultimately, however, the court fight in Kentucky could be short-lived. In November, voters there will consider a measure establishing that there is no state constitutional right to abortion.

The Florida law banning abortions at 15 weeks, which includes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, is similar to the Mississippi statute at the heart of the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade.

The DeSantis administration argued that restricting abortions would protect the health of mothers, who would no longer face the increased risks of undergoing the procedure later in pregnancy.

“They could have them earlier, which is safer,” said James H. Percival, a deputy attorney general.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs countered that many women who seek abortions after 15 weeks do so because of difficult circumstances that preclude them from trying to get the procedure earlier, including learning about a fetal abnormality from the sort of tests that cannot be performed until later in pregnancy. Florida’s existing 24-week ban is intended to restrict abortions after fetuses are viable outside of the womb.

“Neither the interest in maternal health nor the interest in fetal life can support a ban before fetal viability,” said Whitney Leigh White, an ACLU lawyer.

Judge Cooper insisted in court that the matter at hand in Florida was the State Constitution. “I’m here to litigate the right to privacy in Florida,” he said on Monday. “I’m not here to litigate Roe versus Wade.”

But much of the testimony centered anyway on the safety of abortion, when life begins and when a fetus might feel pain. More than 79,000 abortions were performed in Florida last year.

Dr. Shelly Tien, a gynecologist who performs abortions at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Jacksonville as well as in a clinic in Arizona, tested that women who seek abortions after 15 weeks often do so amid a crisis.

“Women and girls who need abortions after 15 weeks tend to have the most challenging and compelling life circumstances,” she said, citing poverty, domestic abuse and complications to an intended pregnancy.

Testifying on behalf of the state, Dr. Ingrid Skop, a senior fellow and director of medical affairs for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research organization, described abortion as “substantially more difficult and dangerous after the 15th week of gestation” and criticized the state of data collection across the country.

“We are vastly underestimating complications” from abortions, she said.

In a separate case, a South Florida synagogue has also challenged the 15-week ban.

In the days since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Republican leaders in Florida have alluded to pursuing further abortion restrictions, without detailing how far they might go.

Florida “will work to expand pro-life protections,” Mr. DeSantis said in a statement last Friday. He avoided questions related to abortion in a public event on Monday.

Opinion surveys have shown that, unlike in some other Southern states, a majority of Floridians support keeping abortion legal.

Alexandra Glorioso contributed reporting from Tallahassee, Fla.

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