By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' administration urged the state's conservative high court on Friday to reverse decades of precedent and find that the state constitution does not protect abortion rights.
State Solicitor General Henry Whitaker asked the Florida Supreme Court to uphold a ban on most abortion after 15 weeks, which went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated a nationwide right to abortion last year. If the state court does so, a more stringent six-week ban - one of the strictest in the nation - would automatically take effect a month later.
"The Florida constitution does not establish a right to abortion, and the court should overrule its precedents that hold otherwise," Whitaker told the court.
The plaintiffs, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), countered that the constitution's guarantee of the right to privacy has always been understood to include abortion since voters approved the language in 1980 - seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a nationwide right to abortion was protected by a federal right to privacy in Roe v. Wade.
The case heard on Friday carries significant consequences for abortion access throughout the South. Most of Florida's neighboring states have installed stringent limits.
Out-of-state residents accounted for 9% of the 44,475 abortions performed in Florida this year through July, up from 6.1% in 2021 and 8.1% in 2022, when states began imposing new bans following the Supreme Court's decision, according to state data.
DeSantis, who is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has faced criticism from some wealthy supporters for backing the six-week ban, which they view as too extreme. He has sidestepped questions about whether he would support a national ban as president.
Democrats are expected to put abortion at the center of next year's campaign after the issue helped them avoid major losses in the 2022 midterm elections.
The Florida court is generally viewed as one of the most conservative in the nation, with all seven justices appointed by Republican governors, including five by DeSantis. One justice is married to a state lawmaker who co-sponsored the six-week legislation.
Whitney White, an ACLU lawyer, said the 15-week ban has already endangered women who develop life-threatening pregnancy complications by making abortion providers reluctant to incur any legal risk, despite language allowing abortions to protect the mother from serious harm.
"Providers are finding their hands tied by H.B. 5," she said, referring to the law. "It is forcing them to wait for patients who are experiencing treatable, medical pregnancy complications to deteriorate to the point of, for example, developing life-threatening conditions."
But Whitaker, the state solicitor general, said the legislature, not the court, was the proper body to decide how to balance the interests of preserving fetal life and protecting women's individual rights.
Abortion rights activists are pursuing an alternative track, collecting signatures for a potential 2024 referendum that would ask voters to add explicit abortion protections to the state constitution.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, David Gregorio and Aurora Ellis)