Editorial: With revamped courts, abortion rights becomes key issue in governor’s race

New York Times
Anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists demonstrate outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.
New York Times Anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists demonstrate outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.
Published July 3 2018
Updated July 6 2018

Abortion rights are routinely under assault from the Republican-led Florida Legislature, and now the preservation of those rights is as fragile as its been in decades. With new appointments coming to both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court, the courts may no longer be a reliable protector of a womanís right to an abortion. That means the abortion rights debate is more than just theoretical in the race for governor, and voters concerned about reproductive freedom and womenís health should pay particular attention.

Itís an annual exercise for Florida lawmakers to try to restrict abortion access within limits. In 2015, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement for two doctor visits before a woman could obtain an abortion. The courts found the law unconstitutional, but even three years later the state is continuing the legal fight. In 2016, lawmakers again tried but failed to pass a law that would have put regulations for operating abortion centers on par with hospitals and other surgical centers ó a veiled effort to shut down clinics. But a 2016 law did block medical providers that perform abortions from receiving state money for preventive care and other services, as well as other regulatory restrictions. Various elements of that law, too, have been struck down by the courts. The assault on abortion rights is relentless, and it could be successful if the balance shifts on the top federal and state courts.

President Donald Trumpís choice to replacing retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, expected to be announced this week, could result in the court being more receptive to limits on abortion weakening the protections from the 1973 Roe vs. Wade opinion that guaranteed a womanís right to an abortion.

The privacy clause in the Florida Constitution provides additional protection for abortion rights, but three state Supreme Court justices will be appointed by Gov. Rick Scott as he leaves office or by the incoming governor. A conservative governor could create a more conservative Florida Supreme Court that could have a more pinched view of abortion rights.

In their recent Republican gubernatorial debate, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis pledged to sign into law a "heartbeat bill," which would outlaw abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women even know theyíre pregnant. So the first time a woman visits her doctor and undergoes an ultrasound, her choice about whether to continue the pregnancy already could be silenced. Thatís blatantly at odds with the privacy clause of the Florida Constitution, which says "every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the personís private life." But a revamped state Supreme Court could have a different view.

Without access to preventive health care, birth control ó not abstinence education but contraceptives ó and abortion, women suffer. Poor women suffer most. When Texas cut its family planning budget and passed a law that effectively closed many of the stateís abortion clinics, the abortion rate didnít go down. Indeed, history has shown that onerous restrictions donít lead to fewer abortions ó they lead to fewer safe ones.

Depending on the new appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court, by next year the door could be wide open to significant new restrictions on abortion rights. That makes abortion rights a key issue in the race for governor. The leading Republican candidates already have said they would sign into law changes that would dramatically reduce those rights. The leading Democrats running for governor have pledged support for abortion rights. Voters should pay close attention, because the challenges to womenís reproductive rights are no longer hypothetical.