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Delay in abortion waiting period sought

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Anticipating a ruling that will uphold a 24-hour abortion waiting period in Florida, opponents have asked a judge to at least temporarily delay putting the decision into effect.

Attorneys for plaintiffs in a challenge to the waiting-period law filed a motion late Friday seeking a stay of the expected ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey while an appeal moves forward. As an alternative, they asked for a “grace period” until April 30 that would allow abortion providers to take steps such as rescheduling appointments.

The Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Scott approved the law in 2015 to require women to wait 24 hours after initial clinic visits before having abortions. The Florida Supreme Court later granted a temporary injunction that has blocked the required waiting period.

But Dempsey during a hearing last week indicated she would issue a summary judgment upholding the constitutionality of the law, according to the plaintiffs. A written ruling had not been posted to the Leon County clerk of courts’ website as of Tuesday morning.

But in the motion for a stay, which was posted Monday, the plaintiffs’ attorneys sought to keep the temporary injunction in place during an expected appeal to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

“Dissolving the TI (temporary injunction) without giving the appellate court a further chance to weigh in and either affirm summary judgment and lift the TI, or reverse (Dempsey’s anticipated ruling), will irreparably alter the status quo — causing substantial constitutional and other harm to thousands of Floridians,” the motion said.

If Dempsey does not approve a stay, the plaintiffs’ attorneys requested keeping the temporary injunction in place until April 30.

“A date certain as to when the act will go into effect is critical to mitigate confusion given that, every day across Florida, patients are arriving for pre-existing appointments and new appointments are being scheduled,” the motion said.

Dempsey’s ruling will be the latest step in years of litigation about the law.

The plaintiffs, clinic operator Gainesville Woman Care, LLC, and the group Medical Students for Choice, immediately challenged the law after it passed in 2015, arguing in part that it violated 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.

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 the circuit court. Dempsey has been scheduled to hold a trial in April but would short-circuit that with a summary judgment ruling.

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 abortion-rights groups criticized the law after Dempsey indicated she would uphold it.

“This law imposes a significant hardship on Floridians that is medically unnecessary, arbitrary, and dangerous,” Daniel Tilley, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said in a prepared statement. “For years, the courts have agreed that imposing an additional barrier that would delay an individual's ability to receive the abortion care they need was in direct violation of Floridians' right to privacy. A person's private medical decisions should be made in consultation with a doctor they trust, not politicians, and no one should ever be made to delay the care they need.”

The legal battle about the waiting period continues after lawmakers early this month gave final approval to a bill that would prevent physicians from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill, though he had not formally received it as of Tuesday morning.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida