Florida Judge Blocks Abortion Waiting Period, But Everywhere Else Will Just Have To Wait

A last-minute attempt to block an onerous abortion restriction worked this week in Florida. On Thursday, a state judge blocked Florida’s 24-hour mandatory waiting period from going into effect, as a legal challenge moves forward. This is the second time this week a Florida state judge had to step in to temporarily block the law, which critics say would place more burdens on women seeking abortion in the Sunshine State.

Earlier this week, a state judge issued a temporary injunction to block the law from going into effect, ruling the measure would cause "irreparable harm" to Florida women. State officials appealed the injunction on Tuesday, triggering an automatic stay. Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson vacated that stay Thursday afternoon, writing the defendants must "demonstrate the injunction was not founded on substantial competent evidence."

Florida's mandatory waiting period would force patients to receive an ultrasound and in-person, state-mandated counseling 24 hours before undergoing an abortion, requiring two separate trips to the clinic. The law carries no exemptions for victims of rape or incest, or for patients who have a substantial health risk. Attorneys from the Center for Reproductive Rights, representing a clinic in Gainesville and Medical Students for Choice, said patients were turned away from clinics on July 1, unable to receive an abortion.

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The ACLU of Florida, which joined the lawsuit along with the Center for Reproductive Rights, previously called the 24-hour waiting period unconstitutional and "medically unnecessary." In their joint brief, lawyers arguing on behalf of the Gainesville clinic said the waiting period was discriminatory by targeting abortion and no other medical procedure.

"The Florida Legislature does not impose a similar mandatory delay or additional-trip requirement on any other medical procedure," lawyers stated in their brief. They added the waiting period would "impose particular harms on low-income women, women who have been abused or sexually assaulted, women facing medical risks from pregnancy that do not rise to the level of a life-threatening medical emergency, and women who seek abortion due to a diagnosis of a severe fetal anomaly."

Autumn Katz, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Thursday:

Women are fully capable of making thoughtful decisions about their lives, families, and health care, and this ruling will keep them from being second-guessed or delayed by politicians who presume to know better. We will continue to fight this demeaning law until the courts permanently strike it down and ensure no Florida woman is ever forced to wait for purely political reasons to get the health care she needs.

Lois Backus of Medical Students for Choice added in a statement that the group was “grateful” for the judge’s ruling. “This decision supports the right of all women patients to make the healthcare decisions they feel are most appropriate for them and enables their physicians to support their decisions,” Backus said.

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Florida would have become the 28th state to enact a mandatory waiting period prior to receiving an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Half of these states with waiting periods require patients to make two trips to the clinic.

While reproductive health advocates have been successful in blocking other types of anti-abortion measures at the state level, including admitting privileges and unconstitutional heartbeat bans, the abortion waiting game is holding strong throughout the Southeast and Midwest. And the waits seem to be getting longer, with some states extending the periods for days on end. South Dakota, Utah and Missouri currently have the longest waiting periods in place — 72 hours. South Dakota's waiting period does not include weekends or holidays, making it the harshest state-mandated delay on abortion in the United States. With only business days counted, many patients in South Dakota may have to wait for nearly a week after receiving in-person counseling to return to the clinic for the abortion procedure.

Oklahoma also extended its mandatory waiting period to 72 hours in May, but the law won't take effect until Nov. 1. The North Carolina state legislature also approved a 72-hour waiting period this spring. And in Tennessee on Wednesday, a 48-hour waiting period took effect even though the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down a similar abortion restriction 15 years ago. Tennessee has just seven abortion clinics left, and only six of them provide surgical abortions.

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Guttmacher released a new report Wednesday outlining the 51 abortion restrictions enacted at the state level during the first six months of 2015. That number is down from 2013, which saw an astonishing 70 abortion restrictions enacted during the first half of the year, but still shows how states have turned into minefields for reproductive health advocates and their patients. Guttmacher researchers noted that enacting and increasing waiting periods have become the target for many state legislatures, and they have a costly impact on patients, who may have to push their appointments back into the second trimester as they struggle to garner funds for not only the procedure, but also cost of travel and accommodations.

Images: courtesy of Whole Woman's Health Baltimore, Getty Images (2)