Health Care

Abortion ruling may affect new Florida law

Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of Whole Woman’s Health, a Texas health that provides abortions, rejoices as she leaves the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2016, as the justices struck down the strict Texas anti-abortion restriction law known as HB2.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of Whole Woman’s Health, a Texas health that provides abortions, rejoices as she leaves the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2016, as the justices struck down the strict Texas anti-abortion restriction law known as HB2. AP

A Florida abortion law that goes into effect Friday could be undermined after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out controversial Texas restrictions.

In a 5-3 vote Monday, the justices ruled the Texas restrictions unconstitutional, including a rule that required abortion doctors obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.

Although abortion-rights supporters and opponents agree that the Supreme Court ruling won’t have an immediate impact in Florida, it does call into question a law Gov. Rick Scott signed this spring. One of the provisions of that sweeping set of abortion regulations requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital or for the clinic to have a transfer agreement there.

During a Monday morning news conference in Tampa, Scott said he was “reviewing” the court’s opinion. It will be up to his Agency of Health Care Administration, which has taken on abortion clinics in the past, to enforce the new Florida law.

Supporters of that law said Monday that it’s different from the Texas restrictions and, therefore, won’t be affected by the ruling.

“Our law was quite different,” said Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. “We did not base our law on Texas.”

A key difference, Stargel said, was Florida’s law allowed clinics to get a transfer agreement, a written understanding between a clinic and a hospital that if something goes awry, the hospital will take their patients. They can be easier to obtain than admitting privileges and, just as important, the agreements apply to every doctor in the clinic.

But while supporters say transfer agreements and admitting privileges guarantee health and safety, opponents say they’re unnecessary. Problems in abortions are rare, and a hospital would be legally obligated to take a patient who was having a serious problem that couldn’t be solved by doctors at the clinic

The court’s ruling provides ammunition for groups like Planned Parenthood, which sued the state in an attempt to block three other provisions of the new abortion law. The first hearing in the case is Wednesday in Tallahassee.

Planned Parenthood has not decided whether it will expand its lawsuit to include the admitting privileges in light of the Supreme Court decision.

“It’s definitely different language,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “But the intent is the same.”

Critics say those requirements are an unnecessary obstacle that some clinics might not be able to overcome. Already, there are many Florida communities that do not have any licensed abortion providers, according to state records.

Often, hospitals do not renew admitting privileges for physicians that have not used them, Goodhue said, which could later create problems for Florida abortion clinic. The Texas law led about 20 clinics to shut down.

There are currently no known abortion clinics expected to close when the new rules go into effect Friday.

If clinics did start to close, however, the constitutionality of Florida’s abortion laws would likely be called into question, said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

“Certainly, if there is an effort to shut down any clinic because of the refusal of a hospital to execute a transfer agreement or permit admitting privileges,” he said, “that would be very difficult to defend in light of today’s ruling.”

Stargel said that is not the intent of the Florida law, called HB 1411.

“HB 1411 will not prevent a single abortion, and it will not close a single clinic,” she said in a statement released by the Florida Senate.

For Democrats, the court ruling became an opportunity to decry Scott and the state Legislature, which has routinely passed laws regulating abortions.

“Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature should take note, reverse course on laws they passed that clearly are unconstitutional ‘undue burdens’ on women and their health clinics and doctors,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said in a statement.

Last year, Scott signed a 24-hour waiting period, which was put on hold by the Florida Supreme Court while state courts consider a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and a Gainesville abortion clinic called Bread and Roses. This year, a law blocked Medicaid funds from paying for preventive services at abortion clinics.

Legal experts say the justices dealt a longer-lasting blow to restrictions in Florida and across the nation by subjecting abortion laws — and the rationale given by state lawmakers who pass them — to tougher scrutiny. Just because lawmakers say they don’t intend to make abortions harder to access does not mean the court will view their laws in the same light.

“The court will be looking behind these claims to make sure that they are true and not a cover for the real motivation,” Simon said.

That could foreshadow trouble for Florida’s law, said Miles Zaremski, a health care lawyer and adjunct at Stetson University College of Law.

“In my point of view,” he said, “the Florida law is in jeopardy.”

Times staff writer Howard Altman contributed to this report.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com, follow @MichaelAuslen.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments