Health News

Gov. Rick Scott signs into law 24-hour abortion wait period

TALLAHASSEE -- Diving into an issue that continues to polarize the country, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a requirement that Florida women visit a doctor and wait at least 24 hours before having an abortion.

Though it won widespread support in the Republican-controlled Legislature, the issue was one of the most emotionally charged questions tackled in the spring session. Word of its passage was quick to trigger passionate defense among pro-life supporters along with raising the ire of pro-choice activists.

The measure, which goes into effect July 1, is one of 55 bills signed by Scott late Wednesday. Among other high-profile issues: One new law attempts to make utility companies more consumer-friendly, while another seeks to end abuse in assisted living facilities.

Opponents of the new waiting period say it isn't necessary because women who choose to have an abortion have already put thought into their decision. Plus, they argue, it creates a burden, particularly for women who live far away from abortion clinics and could struggle to visit the doctor once, let alone twice.

"Women who choose to have an abortion have weighed all the options and have come to a decision," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "It works to the disadvantage of a lot of women who have to come from out of town to get to the provider who's going to perform the procedure."

First-term legislator state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, who sponsored the waiting period bill in the House, defended the new law as helping women.

"The purpose of this bill is to empower women to make an informed decision, versus a pressured, rushed, unexpected one," she said. "This isn't changing access; it's not shutting down clinics."

Sullivan said she thinks the waiting period is important to prevent women being persuaded into having the procedure.

Women will not be required to wait 24 hours for an abortion if they can show a police report, court order or medical report proving the pregnancy came as a result of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking.

When lawmakers were considering the legislation in April, debate turned deeply personal. State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, shared a story about his wife, Victoria, who was advised to have an abortion while pregnant with their daughter.

"I'm glad she had 24 hours to think about it," he said. Erin Gaetz is now 29 years old.

Joyner says the situations are entirely different because Victoria Gaetz chose to give herself more time to think. It was not required by law.

Still, Florida is joining 25 other states where waiting periods ranging from 18 to 72 hours are in effect. The new requirement for abortions works in tandem with a 2011 law signed by Scott, which requires women receive an ultrasound prior to an abortion.

Barbara Zdravecky, president of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said the waiting period could violate the constitutional right to privacy in Florida. The Constitution has been interpreted to mean that the state cannot significantly restrict access to abortions.

"This is an undue burden," Zdravecky said, "particularly on poor women, women of low incomes who are dependent on their jobs and on child care to have to make an appointment in the first place."

Sullivan, however, says her law doesn't restrict access at all and it won't become harder for women to receive an abortion.

"I don't believe there will be an undue burden," she said. "But will they have to make two trips? Yes."

Among other measures: The law making utility companies more accountable also aims to improve the Public Service Commission, which regulates companies such as Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light.

It includes a possible $2 to $3 drop in monthly bills for Duke Energy customers. Savings come from the state allowing Duke to finance the shutdown of its Crystal River nuclear power plant with bonds, rather than passing those costs on to ratepayers.

The bill was backed by Pinellas County Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and state Rep. Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena.

"Ratepayers are not going to get any more of those creative billing practices," Peters said. "It's a great first step."

Members of the PSC also will now be limited to three consecutive terms. This will address what Peters said is "mistrust" on the part of many Floridians.

In future years, Peters said, she plans to make additional reforms to the PSC. Some of them will likely stem from changes to carbon emission limits and recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We have to be good stewards of the environment," she said.

The changes didn't go as far as Latvala wanted, however. He had hoped to force the commission to hold meetings throughout the state, but the bill's development got caught up in the unexpected early end to the regular session.

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