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Judge rejects Florida's 15-week abortion ban

Jacksonville Dobbs v Jackson reaction-14.jpg
Will Brown
/
WJCT News
Hundreds of people rallied outside the Duval County Courthouse on Friday, June 24, 2022, after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe V. Wade.

A judge in Tallahassee ruled Thursday that Florida's new 15-week abortion ban violates the state Constitution, throwing the issue into confusion just a day before the law takes effect.

Judge John Cooper of the 2nd Judicial Circuit said he would issue a temporary injunction against the law in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and several Florida-based abortion providers, including A Woman's Choice of Jacksonville.

Cooper said the law violates the privacy clause of the Florida Constitution, which says that "every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person's private life except as otherwise provided herein.”

Florida courts have held that the clause extends to abortion, and Cooper cited those cases. But he said his injunction would not take effect until he issues a written order, probably next week. That means the 15-week ban could be in effect for a few days.

The state quickly announced that it would appeal the judge's decision. "Governor DeSantis is and always has been pro-life," his office said in a statement. "Our office is confident that this law will ultimately withstand all legal challenges."

The new law, passed in this year's legislative session, would prevent abortions beyond 15 weeks of pregnancy without exceptions for rape or incest, although an exception would be allowed for instances of a “fatal fetal abnormality.” Physicians or other medical professionals could lose their licenses and face administrative fines of $10,000 for each violation.

Until now, Florida has generally allowed abortions until about 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bill (HB 5) along almost straight party lines after tense and hours-long debates. DeSantis signed it in April, saying: "We are here today to protect life. We are here today to defend those who can’t defend themselves.”

Duval abortion rally.jpg
Will Brown
/
WJCT News
A crowd marches near the Duval County Courthouse on Friday, June 24, 2022.

Judge Cooper rejected the law nearly a week after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ruling that abortion should be regulated by states. The ruling touched off angry rallies across the country, including hundreds of people in Duval County.

Cooper acknowledged the Supreme Court decision during earlier hearings but made it clear that his decision was based on the state Constitution, not on Roe v. Wade.

“I’m not here to litigate abortion. I’m here to litigate the right to privacy in Florida. I’m not here to litigate Roe v. Wade,” he said.

Among the plaintiffs testifying was Shelly Tien of Jacksonville, an obstetrician and gynecologist who works with Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida. She said impoverished women and girls would suffer the most under the 15-week ban.

“Women and girls who need abortions after 15 weeks are those that tend to have the most challenging and compelling life circumstances,” Tien said.

A synagogue in South Florida also has challenged the law, saying it violates religious freedom.

Cooper’s ruling drew reactions from numerous political leaders on both sides of the abortion debate, with many speculating the case will end up in the Florida Supreme Court. While justices in the past have ruled that the privacy clause protected abortion rights, the court since 2019 has become far more conservative — with four DeSantis appointees likely to be on the seven-member court later this year.

“Today’s ruling on pro-life HB 5 is disappointing but not unexpected. This issue will need to be resolved in the (Florida Supreme Court), where I hope to see a correct interpretation of the state's privacy clause & HB 5 implemented statewide to save tens of thousands of innocent babies' lives,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said in a tweet.

State Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, touted Cooper’s ruling and said it “protects abortion access” in Florida.

“Extremist GOP leaders will continue their crusade to strip away women’s rights and freedoms — that much is clear — but make no mistake: advocates for choice and for women to have autonomy over their bodies will be there at every turn, continuing to fight with everything we have until women’s rights are fully restored,” Book said in a prepared statement.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity. You can reach him at (904) 358-6319 or Rtroncoso@wjct.org and follow him on Twitter @RayTroncoso.