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Florida Judge Will Temporarily Block 15-Week Abortion Ban

MIAMI — A law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy violates privacy protections in the Florida Constitution, a state judge ruled on Thursday, a day before the new restrictions were to take effect.

In a defeat for the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, Judge John C. Cooper of the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Tallahassee ruled from the bench to block the law, which Mr. DeSantis signed in April. Florida currently allows abortions until 24 weeks, making the state a refuge for women seeking the procedure from across Southeastern states with tighter restrictions.

Judge Cooper said he would issue a temporary statewide injunction. It will not be binding until he signs a written order, something he said would not happen on Thursday.

The ban takes effect at midnight on Friday and will likely be in place for a short time — perhaps a few days, because of the Fourth of July holiday — until the order is completed.

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 overruled Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion that had been in place for nearly 50 years. It resumed on Thursday.

The state will appeal, Mr. DeSantis’s office said in a statement after the ruling. The issue will most likely end up before the Florida Supreme Court, which in the past has cited a broad privacy amendment that voters wrote into the State Constitution in 1980 to block other abortion restrictions from taking effect.

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 could overturn precedent that extended privacy protections to abortions. Mr. DeSantis appointed three of the court’s seven justices; the other four justices 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, making its intentions explicit. “The struggle for life is not over.”

Judge Cooper, citing other cases involving injunctions issued by the trial court, acknowledged that the appellate court is unlikely to keep his temporary pause in place for very long.

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 ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. 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 and other states, 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 by the court, which lifted an injunction and allowed the state to enforce the law against such abortions. He said in a statement that he was “proud to defend Arizona’s law that protects the unborn.”

But Arizona is also poised to start enforcing an even stricter abortion 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 that his office would seek to lift a court injunction and begin enforcing it.

The Florida law banning abortions at 15 weeks, which includes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, is similar to the Mississippi statute at the heart of the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade. In a separate case, a South Florida synagogue has also challenged the 15-week ban.

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 extended to abortion in 1989.

It was not the first time that Judge Cooper has ruled against the DeSantis administration. Last year, he sided against the state when it sought to ban face mask mandates in public schools.

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 preclude 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,” said Whitney Leigh White, an A.C.L.U. lawyer.

Judge Cooper repeated several times in court that the matter at hand was the State Constitution, 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 the safety of abortion, when life begins and when a fetus might feel pain. More than 79,000 abortions were performed in Florida last year.

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.

In the days since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Republican leaders in Florida have alluded to pursuing further abortion restrictions, without detailing how far they might go.

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

Alexandra Glorioso and Jack Healy contributed reporting.

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