Scott signs bill tightening restrictions on abortion clinics

By Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott on Friday approved a sweeping measure that will tighten restrictions on Florida abortion clinics to the point that some say they will be forced to close.

Spokeswomen for Planned Parenthood, which will lose funding under the bill (HB 1411), called the measure "dangerous" and "cruel."

But supporters, including Pam Olsen of the International House of Prayer, hailed the new law.

"It's good news on Good Friday," said Olsen, who is frequently involved in issues at the Capitol.

The bill, which passed largely along party lines, restricts state agencies, local governments and Medicaid managed-care plans from contracting with organizations that own, operate or are affiliated with clinics that perform elective abortions.

That restriction, said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, means low-income Floridians could lose access to the organization's health-care and family-planning services. Planned Parenthood said it has more than 67,000 patients in Florida annually.

"As a result of this bill, thousands of people across Florida may no longer be able to access essential reproductive health care, such as cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams," Richards said in a statement. "This cruel bill is designed to rip health care away from those most at risk."

Senate sponsor Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said on the Senate floor that the bill would likely close six of Florida's 65 abortion clinics.

Among its provisions, the measure will require clinics that perform first-trimester abortions to have patient-transfer agreements with nearby hospitals, or for clinic doctors to have admitting privileges nearby. Clinics that perform second-trimester abortions would have to meet both conditions.

Opponents contend those provisions are medically unnecessary, but supporters say they will protect women's health and safety.

"Abortionists will finally be held to the same standard as all other physicians who perform invasive procedures in a non-hospital setting by the requirement to have admitting privileges or a transfer agreement with a nearby hospital," Ingrid Delgado of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement. "It is incomprehensible that opponents suggest the bill makes women less safe."

Additionally, the bill changes the definition of a first trimester to the period from fertilization through the end of the 11th week of pregnancy. That's a different definition than the state has used in the past, but it's consistent with an administrative action last year by the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which alleged that five clinics --- including three Planned Parenthood facilities -- performed second-trimester abortions without the proper licenses. Clinics have filed challenges, contending that the state changed the definition of a first trimester without notice.

Also, the new law will require the state to inspect at least 50 percent of abortion-clinic records each year. It also bans the sale and donation of fetal remains from abortions and increases the penalties for the improper disposal of fetal remains.

Opponents have said the bill was partly aimed at punishing Planned Parenthood, which has been the target of a national controversy since last year, when videos surfaced alleging that the organization was profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood strongly denied the allegations, and a Texas grand jury that looked at the issues cleared the organization of wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Planned Parenthood deployed a six-figure ad buy to urge Scott to veto the bill and delivered 12,000 petitions to that effect to the governor's office -- without success.

"I thought all along he would sign it," Olsen said. "He's signed every pro-life bill that's come across his desk."

Planned Parenthood and its allies are vowing to fight the new law, but were not ready Friday to say whether they will go to court to try to get it struck down on constitutional grounds.

"We're evaluating all of our options and will do everything in our power to protect access to care," Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, wrote in an email.

But House sponsor Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, has said an amendment approved by the Senate before the final votes was aimed at making sure the measure meets constitutional tests.

Abortion-related laws have repeatedly drawn legal challenges over the years, including a case now pending at the Florida Supreme Court about a 2015 law that requires 24-hour waiting periods before women can have abortions. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a Texas law that includes a number of provisions that Florida has adopted.

News Service of Florida