Florida Judge Will Temporarily Block 15-Week Abortion Ban

MIAMI — In a welcome but likely brief victory for supporters of abortion rights, a judge in Florida blocked a state law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy on Thursday, the latest in a flurry of activity in state courts and legislatures following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The Florida law, scheduled to take effect on Friday, violates privacy protections in the State Constitution, ruled Judge John C. Cooper of the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Tallahassee, handing a defeat to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who enacted the restrictions in April.

But in a complication emblematic of the chaotic past week of legal and legislative action in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, the temporary statewide injunction Judge Cooper issued from the bench will not be binding until he signs a written order. The delay will leave Florida’s 15-week ban in place for a short time — perhaps a few days, because of the Fourth of July holiday — until the paperwork is completed.

Through Thursday, Florida allowed abortions until 24 weeks of pregnancy, making the state a refuge for women seeking the procedure from across Southeastern states with tighter restrictions. More than 79,000 abortions were performed in Florida last year.

Still, even once Judge Cooper’s ruling kicks in, it is expected to be fleeting: The state said on Thursday it would appeal, and the judge acknowledged that the appellate court was unlikely to keep his temporary pause in place for very long.

Republican leaders in Florida have also alluded to pursuing further abortion restrictions, without detailing how far they might go.

Similar legal fights are playing out in other states, where various plaintiffs are arguing that their own state constitutions provide specific protections for abortion. On Thursday, a judge in Kentucky temporarily blocked an abortion ban that was triggered by the Supreme Court’s decision. That law, passed in 2019, called for a near total ban on the procedure and had already led clinics to turn patients away.

As in Florida, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that Kentucky’s Constitution protects the right to an abortion. Ultimately, however, the court fight in Kentucky could be short-lived. In November, voters there will consider a measure establishing that there is no state constitutional right to abortion.

Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court cleared the way for Arizona to begin enforcing a state law that outlaws abortions based on genetic fetal conditions like Down syndrome.

Arizona’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich, a Republican, cheered the administrative move, which lifted an injunction and allowed the state to enforce the law. He said in a statement that he was “proud to defend Arizona’s law that protects the unborn.”

Arizona is also poised to start enforcing an even stricter ban, one that would prohibit all abortions except in cases to save a woman’s life. Mr. Brnovich said on Wednesday that the total ban, which dates back more than a century, was now “back in effect” with Roe overturned. He said his office would seek to lift a court injunction and begin enforcing it.

And in Texas on Wednesday, the attorney general asked the State Supreme Court to lift a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the state’s criminal prohibitions on abortion.

In Florida, Judge Cooper granted the relief sought by Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union after a two-day hearing laid bare the nation’s divisive debate over abortion rights. The hearing began on Monday, three days after the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion that had been in place for nearly 50 years, and resumed on Thursday.

The issue will most likely end up before the Florida Supreme Court, which in the past has blocked other abortion restrictions, citing a broad privacy amendment that voters wrote into the State Constitution in 1980.

But Mr. DeSantis has reshaped the court after several retirements, making it much more conservative and prompting some court observers to predict that the justices will overturn precedent that extended privacy protections to abortions. Mr. DeSantis appointed three of the court’s seven justices; the other four were also appointed by Republican governors.

“We will appeal today’s ruling and ask the Florida Supreme Court to reverse its existing precedent regarding Florida’s right to privacy,” Mr. DeSantis’s office said on Thursday.

Later, the governor said he was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling.

“These are unborn babies that have a heartbeat — they can feel pain, they can suck their thumb,” he said in Sanford, Fla.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a fetus does not develop a heart until between 17 and 20 weeks. And scientific studies have shown that the nervous system in a fetus is not developed well enough to feel pain until 26 weeks.

Judge Cooper found that the ban “is unconstitutional in that it violates the privacy provision of the Florida Constitution and does not meet the standards of the three Florida Supreme Court cases that have interpreted the effect of that constitutional provision on abortion in Florida.”

The constitutional provision states, “Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life.” The Florida Supreme Court first ruled that it applied to abortion in 1989. In 2012, voters rejected a proposed amendment that would have exempted abortion from constitutional privacy protections.

The DeSantis administration argued that restricting abortions would protect the health of mothers, who would no longer face the increased risks of undergoing the procedure later in pregnancy.

“They could have them earlier, which is safer,” said James H. Percival, a deputy attorney general.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs countered that many women who seek abortions after 15 weeks do so because circumstances precluded them from trying to get the procedure earlier, including learning about a fetal abnormality from tests that cannot be performed until later in pregnancy. Florida’s existing 24-week ban is intended to restrict abortions after fetuses are viable outside of the womb.

“Neither the interest in maternal health nor the interest in fetal life can support a ban before fetal viability,” Whitney Leigh White, an A.C.L.U. lawyer, said.

Judge Cooper repeated several times in court that the matter at hand was not Roe v. Wade.

“These decisions are to be made at the state level, rather than at the federal level,” he said, citing the Supreme Court’s decision last week. “That’s what this procedure is about, is construing a provision of the Florida Constitution.”

But much of the testimony centered anyway on how safe abortion is for the pregnant woman, when life begins and when a fetus might feel pain.

Dr. Shelly Tien, a gynecologist who performs abortions at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Jacksonville as well as at a clinic in Arizona, testified that women who seek abortions after 15 weeks often do so amid a crisis.

“Women and girls who need abortions after 15 weeks tend to have the most challenging and compelling life circumstances,” she said, citing poverty, domestic abuse and complications to an intended pregnancy.

Testifying on behalf of the state, Dr. Ingrid Skop, a senior fellow and director of medical affairs for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research organization, described abortion as “substantially more difficult and dangerous after the 15th week of gestation” and criticized the state of data collection across the country.

“We are vastly underestimating complications” from abortions, she said.

On Thursday, Judge Cooper said he found Dr. Tien’s testimony to be more persuasive and better supported by scientific and medical literature, as well as by her extensive experience. Dr. Skop testified that she had never performed an abortion.

Supporters of abortion rights applauded the ruling but acknowledged it was unlikely to prevail.

“While Floridians may soon be able to breathe a sigh of relief, make no mistake, abortion access is in real peril in our state,” Kelly Flynn, president and chief executive officer of A Woman’s Choice clinics, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement after the ruling. “There has been chaos and confusion among patients since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. We cannot let Florida turn the clock back.”

Opinion surveys have shown that, unlike in most other Southern states, a majority of Floridians support keeping abortion legal in most or all cases.

Alexandra Glorioso, Kate Zernike and Jack Healy contributed reporting.

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