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Abortion Waiting Period Appealed As State Eyes More Restrictions

Abortion battles are playing out across state government.

After an appeals-court ruling Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union quickly asked the Florida Supreme Court to reinstate an injunction against a 2015 law that requires 24-hour waiting periods before women can have abortions.

In the Legislature, a Senate panel on Monday approved a sweeping bill that would place new restrictions on abortion clinics, including some restrictions that clinics say could put them out of business.

And on Tuesday, an administrative law judge will hear a case involving a move by Gov. Rick Scott's administration to sanction a Gainesville clinic. The Agency for Health Care Administration last summer alleged that the clinic and four others performed second-trimester abortions without proper licenses. The clinics said the agency changed the definition of "first trimester" in seeking the sanctions.

The 1st District Court of Appeal's decision Friday lifted an injunction issued last summer by a Leon County circuit judge against the 24-hour waiting period law. The appeals-court decision went into effect immediately, forcing women slated to get abortions Friday to reschedule.

"Most of them were in tears," Kristin Davy, owner of Bread and Roses Women's Health Center in Gainesville, said in an affidavit that accompanied the ACLU appeal filed late Friday "It is only because our doctor, who normally sees patients Wednesday and Friday, was eventually able to rearrange her life in order to return to the clinic tomorrow that most of these women will get care in a timely manner --- and even then, they and their families still experienced significant turmoil."

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the appeals court said the circuit judge had failed to prove the existence of a significant restriction on women's right to seek abortions.

"The trial court's failure to make sufficient factually-supported findings about whether the law imposes a significant restriction, and about the state's compelling interests, renders the trial court's sparse legal analysis and conclusions unsupportable and the injunction deficient, and hampers meaningful appellate review," the ruling said.

In its appeal, the ACLU set out to show harm that could result from requiring a second trip to the abortion clinic for women who have to wait 24 hours.

"The mandatory delay and additional-trip requirements will pose particular harms to especially vulnerable groups of Florida women, including low income women; women who are victims of intimate partner violence; those whose pregnancy is the result of rape or other forms of abuse; those with wanted pregnancies that involve a severe fetal anomaly, and those with medical complications of pregnancy that are not immediately life-threatening," said the motion requesting a review by the Florida Supreme Court.

However, Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who sponsored the Senate version of the 2015 law, said the continuing litigation was "part of the legislative process."

"We know that sometimes bills like these will be litigated," she said. "I am happy to see that the stay has been lifted, and hopefully it will lead to the results that this legislature intended."

Meanwhile, lawmakers are poised to pass a sweeping proposal (SB 1722 and HB 1411), filed by Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Colleen Burton, both Lakeland Republicans, that would further tighten restrictions on abortion clinics. The Senate Fiscal Policy Committee on Monday approved the Senate version, which is now ready to go to the Senate floor. The House version also has gone through all of its committees.

The proposal would require clinics that perform first-trimester abortions to have transfer agreements with nearby hospitals or for clinic doctors to have admitting privileges nearby. Clinics that perform second-trimester abortions would have to meet both conditions.

"This is a major medical procedure, something where there can be some very serious side effects that a woman will have to deal with for the rest of her life," Flores said. "It's up to us as the Legislature to ensure that those clinics are held to the highest standards.”

The bill also would define gestation as the period from fertilization through the end of the 11th week of pregnancy. That's a different definition than the state has used in the past, but it's consistent with AHCA's definition in alleging the five clinics performed second-trimester abortions without proper licenses.

Also, the bill would ban the sale and donation of fetal remains from abortions. It would restrict state agencies, local governments and Medicaid managed-care plans from contracting with organizations that own, operate or are affiliated with clinics that perform abortions. And the state would inspect at least 50 percent of abortion-clinic records each year --- a requirement Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, described as "onerous."

"How many women are we denying health care services throughout the state of Florida simply because we're trying to find a way to restrict abortion services?" Clemens said.

Stargel said the measure could cause six of Florida's 65 abortion clinics to close their doors, but its intent was to require the highest standards for health and safety.

"Nothing in this bill is removing a woman's right to choose," she said.