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Judge to consider abortion waiting period

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A Leon County circuit judge will hear arguments Wednesday as the state tries to end a challenge to a 2015 law aimed at requiring women to wait 24 hours before having abortions.

The Florida Supreme Court in 2017 approved a temporary injunction against the law, but legal battles have continued in lower courts. Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey will consider a motion by Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office for summary judgment upholding the law — which, if granted, would effectively prevent a trial scheduled in April.

Lawyers for the state and the plaintiffs have sparred in court documents about whether the law violates the Florida Constitution. Also, they have argued about whether it improperly singles out women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours after initial clinic visits before having the procedures.

“It is undisputed that Florida law subjects no other medical procedure, including those less safe than abortion, to a mandatory delay,” attorneys for the plaintiffs, including clinic operator Gainesville Woman Care, LLC, wrote in a March 4 brief. “In other words, for every other health care service in Florida, patients and physicians have discretion to proceed with the procedure or treatment on the same day that the patient is counseled, once the patient has given valid informed consent.”

But the state’s attorneys contend 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.

The motion also argued that physicians performing abortions often do not have doctor-patient relationships with women seeking the procedures and that “some women who have abortions regret them and experience harm as a result.”

But attorneys for the plaintiffs pushed back against such arguments.

“Plaintiffs offer expert evidence that, contrary to the state’s claims, abortion patients in fact experience very low levels of regret, especially relative to other health care procedures,” they wrote in the March 4 brief.

The 24-hour waiting period law is part of years of efforts by state Republican leaders to place additional restrictions on abortions. One of the most controversial issues during this year’s legislative session was a bill that would prevent physicians from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a measure that Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign.

The plaintiffs immediately challenged the waiting-period law after it passed in 2015. The Supreme Court in 2017 approved a circuit judge’s decision to issue a temporary injunction against the law, pointing to privacy rights in the Florida Constitution that have long been key in abortion cases.

A circuit judge later granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, 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.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida