Health Care

Federal judge could block impending changes to Florida abortion law

In this 2009 photo, women are concealed from view by volunteers as they enter the Planned Parenthood of Collier County clinic in Naples.
In this 2009 photo, women are concealed from view by volunteers as they enter the Planned Parenthood of Collier County clinic in Naples. Associated Press

A federal judge this week could block parts of a new law that restricts abortion clinics in Florida.

Lawyers for Planned Parenthood, which sued two state agencies over the law, argued their case Wednesday before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee.

At issue are three provisions of the legislation signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott this spring:

▪  Blocking all taxpayer money for non-abortion services to abortion providers. These programs total $500,000, according to Planned Parenthood, and include Medicaid funds for preventive services like cancer screenings and HIV testing, as well as a teen dropout program in Palm Beach County.

▪  Requiring that half of all abortion records in the state — likely at least 30,000 cases — be inspected every year by state regulators.

▪  Defining the trimesters of a pregnancy, which Planned Parenthood says could limit some of its clinics by shortening the time period in which abortions are allowed. Deputy Solicitor General Denise Harle said the Agency for Health Care Administration does not interpret the law in that way.

Unless Hinkle intervenes, the omnibus changes will go into effect Friday.

Arguing on behalf of the state, Harle said blocking the law would be an extraordinary move because it does not appear on its face to be unconstitutional. States are allowed to regulate abortions as long as they don’t create extraordinary obstacles to obtain them.

“The state’s not attempting to prevent [Planned Parenthood] from providing abortions,” she said.

Hinkle did not immediately rule, but he raised concerns that the state might indirectly discourage clinics from providing abortions by pulling funding from other programs.

“You can’t defund based on exercising a constitutional right,” he said.

State and federal money already cannot be used for abortions.

Hinkle’s decision, expected this week, will relate only to an injunction that could block the law from going into effect, not determine its constitutionality.

Carrie Flaxman, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood, said the law essentially forces the group to cut back services — or stop providing abortions, which it does not intend to do.

“Defunding will require the plaintiffs to end these programs, close the health center and reduce staff,” she said. “Targeting abortions is not a legitimate interest in doing so.”

Cuts in government funding — though small compared to the approximately $22 million Planned Parenthood spent last year in Florida — could impact 15,000 patients across the state, the group says. But Harle said state agencies have already found new health providers to work with if the law goes into effect Friday.

Hinkle, appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1996, raised further concerns about the heightened volume of patient records that state inspectors would need to review under the law. Planned Parenthood contends that it’s a more onerous standard than other kinds of health facilities face and that it would violate patients’ privacy.

But the state argues it needs to closely monitor abortion clinics to ensure they follow a number of laws passed in recent years “enhancing women’s health and safety” at the facilities, Harle said.

Planned Parenthood’s lawyers expect those assertions will be closely scrutinized, especially in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday that struck down abortion restrictions in Texas. In the ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that courts should weigh the medical benefits of abortion rules, rather than taking state legislatures at their word when they say health and safety are their primary goal.

“These are medically unnecessary restrictions,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

An additional provision of the new Florida law not currently challenged by Planned Parenthood requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital or for clinics to have a transfer agreement. Flaxman said the group is weighing its options in light of the Supreme Court, which ruled a similar Texas provision unconstitutional.

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.