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Judge Rules Abortion Waiting Period Unconstitutional


A 2015 state law requiring a 24-hour waiting period for abortions was ruled unconstitutional Tuesday by a Leon County circuit judge.

Judge Terry Lewis’ decision makes permanent a temporary injunction granted by the Florida Supreme Court last year after a Gainesville abortion clinic challenged the law as a violation of privacy rights under the state’s Constitution.

Abortion-rights supporters, who have repeatedly battled abortion measures approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature, praised Lewis’ ruling.

“The court’s decision affirms what Floridians already know: Politicians have no business interfering with a woman’s personal health care decisions, including the decision to have an abortion,” says Julia Kaye, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, who argued the case before Lewis in November.

The state had asked Lewis to order a trial on the constitutionality of the law.

But in his 10-page ruling, Lewis said the state failed to show there was a “compelling state interest” for the 24-hour waiting period and didn’t show that it was enacted in the “least restrictive manner.”

“The essential problem is that the language of the act — what’s in it and what’s not — belies the claimed compelling nature of the state interest being advanced, and demonstrates ambivalence, if not outright hostility, to the mandate that the least restrictive measures be utilized to advance that interest,” Lewis wrote.

Lewis rejected the state’s argument that most other medical procedures are delayed, although such delays are not legally required, and that the waiting period would “enhance” informed consent.

“None of this, however, justifies singling out abortions for the mandatory delay, when no other medical procedure, including those with greater medical risks, are subject to a mandatory delay,” Lewis wrote.

Lewis also noted that while the law allowed exceptions for medical emergencies and documented cases of rape and domestic violence, it still required a 24-hour delay for women if doctors said waiting might be “adverse” to their health.

“A law that forces a patient to delay medical care to the detriment of her health cannot be the least restrictive means of furthering any compelling state interest,” Lewis wrote.

During the November arguments, Blaine Winship, a lawyer representing the state, said abortion procedures are an “outlier in medical practice” because most other procedures are not performed on the same day that an initial consultation between a doctor and patient takes place.

“The Legislature has acted to bring abortions in line with standard medical practice,” Winship said. “Not out of hostility to the procedure but out of a legitimate concern that women must have the same opportunity for informed consent as patients have with respect with every other invasive procedure that the field of medicine offers.”

But opponents of the waiting period said it would make it harder for women to have access to abortions, including women who would have to travel long distances to make two trips to clinics.

“Today’s ruling is a win for Florida women,” says Nancy Abudu, legal director of the ACLU of Florida. “The forced delay law was an insult to women and imposed medically unnecessary and harmful burdens, particularly on low-income patients.”