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Federal Judge Suspends Insane Florida Abortion Law After ACLU, Miami Group Sue

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So many terrible ideas come out of Tallahassee every year that it's often hard to guess whether a random law was enacted in Florida or Saudi Arabia. Case in point: One of those two places passed a law in March 2016 forcing anyone — a doctor, a social worker, a cousin, a grandmother, etc. — giving "advice" about abortion first to register, pay a fee, and then read a mandatory, government-written statement to the woman debating ending her pregnancy. If an aunt, for instance, failed to do follow these rules and instead took her niece to the nearest Planned Parenthood, she could be jailed for up to a year.

You're right, Florida passed that law! Thankfully, the American Civil Liberties Union teamed up with a host of Florida groups, including the nonprofit Miami Workers Center, to sue and make sure the law never went effect. Late this past Friday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction stopping the state from enforcing the law.

In issuing the order, Tallahassee federal Judge Robert L. Hinkle wrote that the law violated extremely basic provisions of the First Amendment and that it was pretty much impossible to enforce the law as written.

"This case presents a challenge to a state law that (1) imposes a content- and viewpoint-based requirement to register and pay a fee to engage in speech protected by the First Amendment and (2) makes it a crime not to simultaneously engage in compelled speech that the law describes so vaguely that even the state’s Attorney General does not know what is required," Hinkle wrote. "This order grants a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of these provisions."

The law already mandated that if a minor asked someone for abortion advice, that person must tell that kid's parents or risk being jailed.

But the bill, HB 1411, which later became law, was transparently designed to crack down on abortion access. A different portion of the law infamously stripped state funding to abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood, and yet another provision placed ridiculous rules on facilities that end pregnancies, including forcing them to operate under the same laws that govern surgical centers even though there is no medical need to do so.

Thankfully, portions of the law have since been struck down or likely will be: In July 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a nearly identical Texas law requiring medically unnecessary abortion "facilities" was unconstitutional.

Planned Parenthood also sued Governor Scott and won, and in August 2016 a federal judge reinstated funding to women's health clinics that provide abortions. A different part of the law requiring ridiculous and intentionally time-consuming recordkeeping procedures was also struck down.

This left the Orwellian portion of the law criminalizing unsanctioned, verbal "abortion advice." But as of Friday, the state cannot enforce that part either.

"This ill-considered and dangerous law criminalized conversations between confidants, including friends, relatives, clergy people, mental health workers, and a host of others," Florida ACLU legal director Nancu Abudu wrote in a news release after the injunction was issued. "We will continue to do everything possible to protect the rights of both Florida women contemplating an abortion and those they turn to seeking compassion and advice.”

A coalition of Florida groups joined the ACLU and Miami Workers Center, including multiple reverends and rabbis, multiple statewide services that help women pay for abortions, and the Palm Beach County chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The groups all argued that they regularly help women — who are often poor, underage, and without access to basic health services — to deal with accidental pregnancies. They said conforming to certain portions of the law were impossible: The law mandated that abortion "advisers" give a "full and complete" definition of abortion, including its benefits and drawbacks. But that wasn't adequately defined under the law. If they failed to do this thing that had no real definition, they could be jailed.

Moreover, many of the groups said it was deeply harmful to rat out underage women to their parents for simply seeking abortion information, and other religious leaders said the state law was interfering with their ability to speak about abortion in front of congregants without complying with state law. In other words: The law was a total mess.

The Attorney General's Office tried to defend itself by claiming the law would never actually be enforced, a statement Judge Hinkle found both absurd and untrue. While Hinkle did say the state has no real way to police whether citizens are talking about abortion in the privacy of their own homes, he said that doesn't still give the state the right to enact an illegal law.

"The defendants note, correctly, that the compelled-speech and parental-notification provisions have been in place since 1979 and that nobody has been prosecuted for violating them," Hinkle wrote. "They imply that this history of non-enforcement means that the statute also will not be enforced in the future. But this assertion fails to account for the Legislature’s recent amendment, which requires AHCA to create and maintain a public registry of all those who provide advice about abortions."

So in attempting to make an existing anti-abortion law even crueler to women, state lawmakers succeeded only in striking down parts of a law that's been on the books for nearly 40 years.

“This law is an example of how far Florida politicians are willing to go to compromise a woman’s right to access abortion," Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a news release. "A woman’s trusted advisors, whom she turns to for personal and private conversations when considering abortion, should be free to provide compassionate support without the threat of criminal charges. We are very pleased that the court has blocked these dangerous requirements from causing further harm.”

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