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Abortion rights hang in the balance at state Supreme Court oral arguments

Reporter: Floridapolitics

 Abortion rights hang in the balance at state Supreme Court oral arguments

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The Florida Supreme Court is poised to make a crucial decision potentially affecting not only Florida residents’ abortion rights but also marking an entire swath of the country as a place where abortion is mostly off-limits. Justices will hold oral arguments today on whether Florida’s existing 15-week abortion ban violates the privacy clause in the state constitution enacted by voters in 1980.

And if the Supreme Court agrees with the state’s case, it will clear the way for new legislation further restricting abortion to go into effect 30 days after the court’s ruling. That new law (SB 300) the Legislature passed earlier this year bans abortion before most people know they are pregnant — after six weeks of pregnancy unless the mother’s life is at risk, or the patient can produce proof of rape or incest.

The case the court will hear today has kept that law from going into effect. Florida is currently the only place from Texas to South Carolina and north to Tennessee where abortion is allowed at 15 weeks. Those states and all those between either ban it after six weeks or allow it only under special circumstances. Previously, the high court had blocked another abortion law based on a privacy clause voters approved in 1980. Attorney General Ashley Moody has asked the court to overturn the 1989 ruling, contending that it is as “egregiously wrong” as the Roe decision and that the privacy clause was never intended to include abortion. “Far from a hidden thought whispered in the confines of the home, the effects of abortion ripple throughout society, from the women who endure it to the medical staff who perform it, to the unborn lives extinguished by it,” states the brief from Moody and her legal team. But attorneys representing the abortion clinics and the physician challenging the law with the 15-week ban point out that voters in 2012 rejected a constitutional amendment proposed by the Legislature that would have wiped out the 1989 ruling. “The state asks this court to override the will of the people and do with the stroke of a pen precisely what the people rejected at the ballot box,” states the brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. All eyes will be on Justice Charles Canady.

Some have called for him to recuse himself because his wife, Republican state Rep. Jennifer Canady, R-Lakeland, co-sponsored the six-week ban that would soon become Florida law after the ruling. The Liberty Counsel, which bills itself as a religious civil liberties law firm, filed an amicus brief supporting the state’s case and noted Florida’s role in the Southeast region since the U.S.

Supreme Court overturned the court decisions that guaranteed abortion rights up to when a fetus can survive outside the womb — at about 24 weeks — throughout the country. “Tragically, after … Roe (v. Wade) and Casey (v. Planned Parenthood) abortion decisions were overturned, Florida has become a sanctuary for abortion, said Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman, according to a prepared statement.

“Now the Florida Supreme Court must establish this as a state that values unborn life according to the state Constitution.” In the background, however, a coalition of groups have come together to form Floridians Protecting Freedom (FPF). It’s a political committee pressing for another constitutional amendment that would render the high court’s opinion moot if cleared to be on the ballot and approved. If the petition garners enough signatures to get on the ballot and then the question wins the approval of 60% or more of voters, the state constitution would be amended to guarantee abortion rights as Floridians had for nearly 50 years before last June’s Supreme Court decision. The group announced Wednesday it had gathered enough petition signatures to trigger a state Supreme Court review of the question. One-third of the 891,523 required validated signatures that need to be validated by Feb.

1 — 297,799 signatures — have been validated, the official state tracker shows. If it goes on the ballot, the referendum would ask voters to agree that “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 health care provider.” Lauren Brenzel, FPF campaign director, said that Floridians, who polls show overwhelmingly support abortion rights, should take heart no matter the outcome of Friday’s oral arguments. “Our campaign is poised to give voters the chance to reclaim their freedom and put a stop to politicians interfering in our personal medical decisions once and for all,” Brenzel said in a prepared statement. ___ Christine Jordan Sexton of Florida Politics contributed to this report.

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