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Friday, June 21, 2024

Florida Supreme Court allows one of nation’s strictest abortion bans to take effect

Florida’s conservative Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state’s constitution does not protect abortion rights, allowing one of the country’s strictest and most far-reaching abortion bans to take effect in 30 days.

But in a separate decision, the high court also ruled that an amendment to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution can go on the November ballot, for a vote that could potentially undo the new strict abortion ban in a matter of months.

The abortion ban ruling significantly narrows the scope of a provision in the Florida Constitution that protects the right to privacy, added by voters in 1980 and long interpreted by courts as a safeguard against abortion restrictions.

The decision will have a two-step impact on abortion access in Florida.

While the case centered on the constitutionality of the state’s existing 15-week ban, which took effect in the summer of 2022, the court’s ruling will also trigger a far stricter law passed this spring that will outlaw abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before many people know they’re pregnant. Florida’s six-week ban was written to take effect only if the Supreme Court greenlit the 15-week law.

The six-week ban in Florida — which includes exceptions for rape, incest, fatal fetal anomalies and medical emergencies — will all but eliminate abortion access in the South, while further straining abortion clinics elsewhere across America.

The parallel rulings offer a snapshot into the conflicting political forces in Florida and across the nation since the fall of Roe v. Wade in 2022. While Florida’s high court has grown significantly more conservative under Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), surveys show most of the state’s voters oppose bans on abortion during the very early stages of pregnancy.

Last year, more than 82,000 people got abortions in Florida, more than almost any other state, and far more than were previously reported in any of the 17 states that have now banned all or most abortions. Of the states with bans, Texas had the most reported abortions before the new wave of antiabortion laws, with more than 50,000 abortions performed in the state in 2019.

Voters in November will have a chance to decide if they want women to be able to continue to access the procedure. The Floridians Protecting Freedom coalition gathered more than 1.5 million signatures in less than nine months to put the proposal on the ballot — far more than the 891,523 needed. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody objected to the language in the proposed amendment, saying it was too broad. But the state Supreme Court sided with advocates in their ruling Monday.

The proposed amendment states: “No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider.” A 60 percent supermajority would need to vote in favor of the amendment to add it to the constitution.

Florida’s current 15-week ban has already compelled many patients to seek abortion care elsewhere, including those with life-threatening pregnancy complications. A six-week ban in Florida will affect tens of thousands of more people, forcing many to drive hundreds of miles to undergo the procedure.

“There is nowhere in the Southeast that can absorb Florida’s patient base. It’s simply not possible,” said Lauren Brenzel, the campaign director of Floridians Protecting Freedom, a campaign dedicated to putting abortion on the ballot in Florida in 2024. “That is simply an unmanageable volume of patients to try to offset to another state.”

The six-week ban emerged as an issue in DeSantis’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Antiabortion activists have praised the law, but former president Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee, has called the six-week ban “terrible.” Some Republicans, pointing to recent electoral defeats for antiabortion causes, have warned of a political backlash in the general election against strict bans.

The ruling reflects a major shift for the Florida Supreme Court, which has struck down several abortion restrictions over the past few decades. It has recently been reshaped by DeSantis into what many consider one of the most conservative courts in the country. Several judges who ruled to uphold the abortion ban have roots in the antiabortion movement.

One of those justices, Charles Canady, is a former Republican congressman who sponsored legislation to outlaw abortions later in pregnancy. His wife, state Rep. Jennifer Canady (R), co-sponsored the six-week abortion ban.

Advocates in Florida are now looking to the 2024 election — and a potential ballot initiative that would allow Floridians to add an amendment to their state constitution that explicitly protects abortion rights.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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