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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Florida's abortion law faces another court challenge

Posted By on Thu, Dec 15, 2016 at 7:00 AM

Citing First Amendment and privacy rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has filed a federal lawsuit challenging part of a sweeping abortion law that has already had other provisions blocked by a judge.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Tallahassee on behalf of clergy members and abortion-rights proponents, targets part of the law dealing with individuals or organizations that provide advice to women considering abortions.

The law requires anyone who counsels women about abortions to provide an explanation about the procedure, including alternatives, before making referrals or assisting in obtaining abortions.

"It compels private, noncommercial speakers without medical expertise to deliver a state-mandated speech before aiding a woman seeking an abortion in violation of the speaker's First Amendment right to decide for him- or herself what not to say," the complaint said.

The lawsuit —- the latest legal challenge to the Republican-dominated Legislature's attempts to impose new restrictions on abortion —- will be handled by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who this summer sided with abortion providers in a challenge to other parts of the law, passed during the 2016 legislative session and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Hinkle permanently blocked from going into effect key provisions that would have barred abortion providers from receiving public funds for other services and required a dramatic increase in inspections of abortion records by health officials.

In a separate case, the Florida Supreme Court last month heard arguments in a challenge to a 2015 law requiring 24-hour waiting periods before woman can obtain abortions.

This week's challenge focused on provisions in the 2016 law dealing with an "abortion referral or counseling agency," defined as "any person, group, or organization, whether funded publicly or privately, that provides advice or help to persons in obtaining abortions."

The law requires abortion referral or counseling agencies to furnish "a full and detailed explanation of abortion, including the effects of and alternatives to abortion" before making a referral or aiding a person in obtaining an abortion. Violations of the law can result in a misdemeanor.

"This ill-conceived law criminalizes the intimate conversations a woman has with her support network," ACLU of Florida Legal Director Nancy Abudu said in a statement.

The law "clearly intends to bully and intimidate women's trusted advisors with a vague and complicated bureaucratic process, under the threat of criminal charges," Abudu said.

The plaintiffs —- including three rabbis, three ministers, two non-profit organizations that provide abortion funding for low-income women and the Palm Beach County chapter of the National Organization for Women —- contend they don't have any medical training and aren't qualified to offer the information, which isn't spelled out in the law.

"The challenged provisions burden, restrict, and interfere with the spiritual, privileged communications between a member of the clergy and the person seeking his or her spiritual guidance," West Palm Beach lawyer James K. Green and other attorneys wrote in the 36-page complaint.

The plaintiffs are also challenging a provision that requires counselors to inform minors' parents if the minors discuss abortions. The plaintiffs claim the provision violates the right of privacy guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment by forcing members of the clergy and others to betray the confidentiality of "the most personal and intimate of discussions."

The lawsuit also maintains that the law would require clergy members or others to register with the state and pay a $200 fee and is an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause because it imposes a "discriminatory licensure and fee requirement that targets those who provide advice or seek to help women in obtaining abortions, while not imposing a similar licensure and fee requirement on others who provide counseling on other types of medical procedures."

The lawsuit asks Hinkle to block provisions of the law from going into effect Jan. 1.

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