Judge Puts Two Provisions In Abortion Law On Hold

Jul 5, 2016

Credit Ebyabe via wikimedia commons

Three provisions in a wide ranging abortion measure passed earlier this year are on hold after a federal judge intervened late Thursday evening.  The case comes on the heels of a major abortion ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The last week represents something of a sea-change in abortion case law.  The U.S. Supreme Court last Monday struck down two Texas provisions that heighten regulations on abortion providers.

“The first law says that a doctor must have admitting privileges,” Justice Stephen Breyer began during oral argument back in March.

He went on to interrogate Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller about the law’s impact on women’s health.  Breyer pressed Keller to offer an example of the admitting privileges requirement offering a medical benefit.  

Keller couldn’t provide one. 

Breyer then moved on to the second provision, demanding clinics meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

“So what is the benefit here,” Breyer asked, “to giving, I mean the woman, there is I can’t say it’s zero here, this ambulatory surgical center when the risk is miniscule compared to common procedures that women run every day in other areas without ambulatory surgical centers?”

“That has never been the test in Casey,” Keller pushed back.

Now it is. 

Breyer’s majority opinion says the question of the whether an abortion restriction presents an undue burden—the legal test from the Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey—is answered by weighing its benefits against its hardships.  A lower court deferred to the Texas Legislature—allowing lawmakers had a rational basis for imposing laws they believed would improve women’s health.

In Florida, the Supreme Court ruling came at a consequential moment.  Last Wednesday Planned Parenthood and the state of Florida met in federal court before a judge to argue whether portions of a wide ranging abortion law should be allowed to take effect.

“I think it was clear from the Supreme Court case this week that these are medically unnecessary restrictions,” Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Florida executive director Laura Goodhue said after the hearing.  “Planned Parenthood has been a valuable part of the communities in Florida for more than fifty years, and so we’ve seen an escalation in these tactics under the guise of protecting the health and safety of women.”

Goodhue’s organization challenged three parts of the law: one part defunds abortion providers even if the money was going toward other women’s health services, another requires half a providers’ records be audited every year and the last changes how doctors define trimesters. 

The bill’s Senate sponsor Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel defends the changes.

“It’s not shutting down clinics, it’s not stopping a woman’s right to have that abortion, it’s just making sure that we have the same level of care on a woman who’s having an abortion as we do other similar procedures,” Stargel says.

Despite that, the judge blocked the defunding and reporting requirements.

“We’re really happy,” Goodhue said after the ruling came down, “so we will be working diligently to make sure that we can continue these vital programs that provide cancer screenings, testing and treatments for STDs and affordable birth control.”

And there’s plenty of work to do—contracts for those services lapsed on June 30.  On Wednesday, Barbra Zdravecky CEO of Planned Parenthood for Southwest and Central Florida described the contracts Planned Parenthood holds for non-abortion services.

“These contracts historically just roll over really without much discussion or renegotiation it’s only this year targeted by the Legislature that they are in question,” Zdravecky said at Wednesday’s hearing.

The judge’s order seems to restore that status quo, but Friday Goodhue said they were still working on the arrangements. 

There’s also the question of admitting privileges.  Florida’s law also carries a different requirement than the one in Texas, and clinics now have to comply with that part of the law.  Planned Parenthood has warned they haven’t taken a separate challenge off the table if those requirements end up leading to closures.  

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