Florida Supreme Court hands down two key abortion decisions

The Florida Supreme Court in two rulings Monday upheld the state’s 15-week abortion ban, but also approved a ballot measure that would protect abortion access if voters pass it in November.

In upholding the current ban, a majority of the conservative-leaning court said the state’s constitutional right to privacy does not include abortion. Five of the seven justices currently on the court were appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), and several have deep connections to the anti-abortion movement.

The decision means a separate six-week ban will be triggered and will take effect on May 1 — banning abortion before many women know they are pregnant. DeSantis signed the six-week ban into law last year, just before he announced his presidential run.

Even with a 15-week ban, Florida has become a haven for women seeking abortions from other states with even stricter laws, so the change in policy will be felt across the Southeast and beyond, as the influx of patients puts a strain on out-of-state abortion clinics.

Data gathered by the Guttmacher Institute showed that there were nearly 5,000 more abortions provided in Florida in the first six months of 2023.

“This is about to create an unprecedented public health crisis in the state of Florida. This is the largest single loss of care that we’ve seen since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and we can’t fully understand what the impact will be,” said Lauren Brenzel, campaign director for the Yes on 4 initiative.

Virginia is now the only state in the South that allows 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.

Florida’s six-week ban includes exceptions for rape, incest, medical emergencies and certain “fetal anomalies.”

The law would also provide $25 million in state funding every year for crisis pregnancy centers, which aim to dissuade people from getting abortions.

But voters in November will be able to decide if they want the six-week ban to continue.

Facing an April 1 deadline to rule, the court in a separate decision sided with a coalition of abortion rights groups sponsoring the ballot initiative.

By greenlighting the measure, the court dealt a serious blow to DeSantis and GOP Attorney General Ashley Moody, who opposed it.

The dueling decisions all but ensure abortion rights will be a major issue in Florida during a presidential election.

If passed, the initiative would roll back the state’s current 15-week ban to the point of viability, about 24 weeks, when the fetus can survive outside the womb.

“When voters head to the polls this November, they will send a message to Florida politicians that decisions about whether or not to have an abortion should be between a patient and a provider, not a constituent and their politician,” Brenzel said.

Florida’s Supreme Court acts as a gatekeeper for ballot measures. Once a measure gathers enough signatures to qualify, the court is charged with determining that the language that will appear on the ballot is only about one subject and won’t confuse voters. The court is not supposed to rule on the merits of a measure.

The court rejected arguments from the state and anti-abortion groups that the measure was about more than one subject, and that the summary was confusing to voters.

“That the proposed amendment’s principal goal and chief purpose is to limit government interference with abortion is plainly stated in terms that clearly and unambiguously reflect the text of the proposed amendment.  And the broad sweep of this proposed amendment is obvious in the language of the summary,” the court wrote.  “Denying this requires a flight from reality.”

In a statement, the country’s leading anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America called on DeSantis to lead the fight against the amendment.

“As Florida faces what may be its biggest ballot fight yet, Gov. Ron DeSantis must be at the forefront of protecting Florida from Big Abortion’s attempt to eliminate the rights of unborn children, parents, women, and girls,” SBA State Policy Director Katie Daniel said.

“Gov. DeSantis signed protections for babies who feel pain and have a heartbeat into law and now he must lead in defending those protections,” Daniel added.

Before he dropped out of the presidential race, DeSantis rarely discussed the state’s efforts to ban abortion while on the campaign trail.

Updated: 6:00 p.m.

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