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Florida's abortion rights on the line in state supreme court arguments

Abortion access will be on the line Friday when Florida’s highest court considers a challenge to the state’s 15-week abortion ban.

A group of abortion providers challenged the law after it passed in 2022, arguing it violates the state’s constitutional right to privacy, which the Florida Supreme Court in 1989 said provides a fundamental right to an abortion.

The state is arguing the nearly 35-year-old ruling was wrong and is banking on a much more conservative court to agree. Five of the seven justices were appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who is running for president.

In a court filing, the state said the right to privacy “has nothing to do with abortion” and doesn’t extend to a person’s “decisional autonomy.”

Instead, Attorney General Ashley Moody’s (R) office said the law protects “informational privacy, like the disclosure of private facts.”

Abortion-rights advocates say the outcome will determine not only the future of abortion in Florida but also across much of the South. 

If the justices uphold the existing law and say there is no right to an abortion, the decision would automatically trigger an even stricter law that will ban abortions after six weeks. 

The court could also uphold the 15-week ban without changing its interpretation of Florida’s constitution.

DeSantis signed the six-week ban into law in April, and it is set to take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court issues a decision. If that happens, Virginia would be the only state in the South to allow abortion beyond the first trimester. 

Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi have banned abortion at all stages of pregnancy with limited exceptions, as have Tennessee and Kentucky. Georgia and South Carolina ban abortion after a fetal “heartbeat” has been detected, which is usually around six weeks. Abortion is banned in North Carolina at 12 weeks and later.

DeSantis, like many of the other GOP presidential candidates, has not made abortion a centerpiece of his campaign. He has dodged questions about whether he would implement a six-week ban nationally, but he has defended the state law.

Abortion-rights activists said they are hoping the conservative court rules in their favor, but they’re not optimistic. 

“Basically, we’re in a situation where the governor and elected officials are putting politics over the health and safety of pregnant Floridians,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel of the ACLU of Florida, which is representing the abortion clinics.

“Decades of Florida state precedent have all held that the government should not be interfering in personal private medical decisions, including the decisions of whether and when to have a child. And we hope that the Supreme Court will uphold the will of the people,” Gross said.

While many abortions occur within the 15-week period, abortion providers are seeing an influx of patients, which creates longer waiting times for patients to schedule appointments. 

Florida law requires anyone seeking an abortion to have two in-person doctor visits, as well as complete a 24-hour waiting period. 

Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said clinics are preparing for the possibility of a six-week ban. 

“People who get pregnant in Florida will have to find out that they’re pregnant before six weeks, make two visits to a doctor — if they can find one — and terminate a pregnancy before most people even know that they’re pregnant,” Goodhue said. “It’s a terrible way to provide health care.”

Florida voters enshrined a right to privacy in the state constitution in 1980. The language is broad, saying that a person “has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion in the person’s private life.” 

In its court filing, the state said voters never considered that the amendment would apply to abortion. They understood it was meant to “protect only informational privacy, not decisional rights like abortion.”

If the court rules that there is no right to an abortion, advocates said they would pin their hopes on a ballot measure effort. If it passes, that measure would overturn both the six-week and 15-week bans. 

“We’re going to get more aggressive, hopefully, in our campaign to put it on the ballot. If it gets in the ballot for November of next year, it will pass,” said Cecilia Grande, a Miami-based OB-GYN who serves on the national Committee to Protect Health Care’s Reproductive Freedom Taskforce.

Supporters have already collected about 300,000 verified signatures to trigger a state supreme court review.

Proponents need to gather about 900,000 signatures to get on the ballot, and then it will need at least 60 percent approval to pass.

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