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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The contentious debate over reproductive rights in America was on full display in a Tallahassee courtroom on Monday, where experts on both sides of the fight testified in a case challenging Florida’s recently passed 15 week ban on abortions.
Planned Parenthood of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union recently sued Florida to block the new law, which was approved by the Republican-led Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April.
The groups argue Florida’s law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy without exceptions for rape or incest violates the right to privacy that’s enshrined in the state’s constitution. That privacy clause has been used to block previous abortion restrictions from taking place, including one decades ago that required minors to get parental consent before getting an abortion.
The Florida case has a new sense of urgency after the Supreme Court last week struck down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that gave women a constitutional right to get abortions. That case opened the door for states to further restrict abortions and set elected officials and activists rushing to either attempt to ban the procedure or create more protections.
Florida’s abortion measure is mirrored on the Mississippi law at the heart of the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe and Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.
DeSantis on Friday, just hours after the high court issued its opinion, said Florida will expand “pro-life protections” but provided no details.
Monday’s hearing included testimony from Shelly Hsiao-Ying Tien, a Jacksonville-based doctor who is one of the plaintiffs challenging the law. Tien said most people who have an abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy are struggling economically, living in poverty, facing serious medical complications or they are involved in a violent intimate relationship.
“They tend to have the most challenging, compelling life circumstances,” Tien said.
Tien also said the 15-week ban would scare away doctors from providing abortions. The consequences of violating the new ban include losing a medical license, facing a hefty fine and serving prison time, which were already included in state law before the Legislature approved the measure in March. Florida previously banned women from getting the procedure after 24 weeks.
“There are easier ways to make a living,” Tien said.
Almost 80,000 women received abortions last year in Florida from one of the 55 providers. That includes close to 5,000 women that traveled to Florida and received the procedure in the state.
The law is set to go into effect on Friday, but the judge in the case, Circuit Judge John Cooper, said he will announce his ruling on Thursday over whether to temporarily halt it as the case winds through the court system.
Lawyers for the office of state Attorney General Ashley Moody told Cooper they are packing the case with information with an expectation that the outcome will set a new precedent.
“That’s why I set another day, on top of today, so that we can talk about these things,” Cooper said.
Although Florida’s Supreme Court previously cited the Florida privacy right in shooting down earlier abortion restrictions, the makeup of the current state high court has dramatically shifted to the right. Conservatives currently dominate the state Supreme Court after DeSantis appointed three of them to the bench, and abortion rights groups fear the court could interpret the privacy clause differently and uphold the 15 week ban. Lawyers for the state, however, have said the privacy right was not meant to govern abortion laws. Maureen Condic, a neurobiologist and embryology professor at the University of Utah, testified on behalf of the state that life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes the egg.
“That’s based on research,” Condic said. “That’s what the research has shown me.”
Ingrid Skop, senior fellow and director of medical affairs at the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, which is affiliated with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, also testified for the state and said that along with her own beliefs about abortion, her medical profession requires that she treat fetuses as people.
“As an obstetrician, I believe the unborn human is my patient and I should advocate for that patient,” Skop said.