Florida Supreme Court upholds state's 15-week abortion ban, but voters will soon have a say

FILE - Participants wave signs as they walk back to Orlando City Hall during the March for Abortion Access, Oct. 2, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. The Florida Supreme Court on Monday, April 1, 2024, upheld the state's ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which means a subsequently passed six-week ban can soon take effect. (Chasity Maynard/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)
FILE - Participants wave signs as they walk back to Orlando City Hall during the March for Abortion Access, Oct. 2, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. The Florida Supreme Court on Monday, April 1, 2024, upheld the state's ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which means a subsequently passed six-week ban can soon take effect. (Chasity Maynard/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for the state to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant, while also giving voters a chance to remove restrictions in November.

The court, which was reshaped by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, ruled 6-1 to uphold the state's ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, meaning a ban on six weeks could soon take effect. But under a separate 4-3 ruling, the court allowed a ballot measure to go to voters that would enshrine abortion rights in Florida's constitution.

The court's decisions could be pivotal in the presidential race and congressional contests this year by driving abortion-rights supporters to the polls. Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, voters in every state with an abortion-related ballot measure have favored the side backed by abortion rights supporters.

The 15-week ban, signed by DeSantis in 2022, has been enforced while it was challenged in court. The six-week ban, passed by the Legislature last year, was written so that it would not take effect until a month after the 2022 law was upheld.

Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and others who challenged the law argued that the Florida Constitution's unique privacy clause for more than 40 years has explicitly protected a right to abortion in the state and should remain in force.

Lawyers for the state, however, said when the privacy clause was adopted by voter referendum in 1980, few people understood it would cover abortion. They told the justices the clause was mainly meant to cover "informational privacy" such as personal records and not abortion.

The Florida justices agreed, saying that when voters approved the privacy clause, they didn't know it would affect abortion laws.

"The debate — as framed to the public — overwhelmingly associated the Privacy Clause's terms with concerns related to government surveillance and disclosure of private information to the public'" the court wrote. "Prolife and prochoice groups did not join in the fray. These groups are not politically bashful— not now, and not in 1980."

DeSantis, who took office in 2019, appointed five of the court's seven justices.

Republican House Speaker Paul Renner said the six-week ban is a good fit for Florida and noted the law includes exceptions for cases involving rape, incest and fetal abnormalities, as well as to save a mother's life.

"It is a compromise that addresses where I think many Floridians are."

Abortion rights proponents were disheartened by the ruling.

"This decision demonstrates how precarious our personal freedoms are in this state," said Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani. "It's so extreme you're going to see Floridians having to go out of state, probably to Virginia, to get care."

The Florida Access Network plans to switch its strategy from finding abortion care for women in Florida to paying for their travel expenses to go out of state, said Stephanie Loraine Pineiro, the advocacy group's executive director.

"People who can't afford to travel, can't afford to lose their jobs because they have to travel for abortion care, these are the people who are going to be forced to remain pregnant," she said. "The collateral damage is all of us."

The proposed constitutional amendment that will be on the November ballot says "no law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient's health, as determined by the patient's healthcare provider." It provides for one exception that is already in the state constitution: Parents must be notified before their minor children can get an abortion.

Most Republican-controlled states have adopted bans or restrictions on abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs decision.

A survey of abortion providers conducted for the Society of Family Planning, which advocates for abortion access, found that Florida had the second-largest increase in the total number of abortions provided since the Dobbs decision. The state's data shows that more than 7,700 women from other states received abortions in Florida in 2023.

Fourteen states, including nearby Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, now have bans on abortion at all stages of pregnancy, with limited exceptions. Georgia and South Carolina bar it once cardiac activity can be detected, which is generally considered to be around six weeks into pregnancy.

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Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, N.J.; Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Stephany Matat in West Palm Beach; Mike Schneider in Orlando; Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg; and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.

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