Florida is one of at least 30 states where lawmakers this year are considering a variety of measures limiting abortion or providing rights to unborn children.
But, unlike in previous years, the proposals most likely to succeed in Florida are those that do not involve abortion itself, a reversal some observers believe may be a reaction to state voters’ overwhelming rejection of a proposed constitutional amendment in 2012. That proposal would have banned public funding of abortion and eliminating the state constitution’s right to privacy in the case of abortion.
“That was a hopeful wake-up call to the legislative body that the voters think they should focus on something else,” said Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates vice president Judith Selzer. “Unfortunately, they only learned half of the lesson because they still introduced eight bills that are trying to restrict a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion.”
The eight bills actually are four proposals, each with a House and Senate version. None are as dramatic as those passed this month in North Dakota, effectively banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, and in Arkansas, banning them after 12 weeks.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, signed three abortion-related measures into law on Tuesday, including one that quickly overtook Arkansas’ new law as the toughest restriction in the nation.
That law banning abortions when a heartbeat can be detected, which is as early as six weeks in a pregnancy, is “a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe V. Wade,” Dalrymple said in a statement, referring to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion up to until a fetus is considered viable — usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
Nationwide, state legislatures are considering at least 400 anti-abortion or pro-life bills, according to the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.
Two of the Florida proposals – one that would make it illegal to perform an abortion based on the gender or race of the fetus and another that would ban abortions altogether except when the mother’s life is endangered – are unlikely to make it to the floor in either legislative chamber for a full vote this year, although the gender/race-related bill was approved by the House Criminal Justice Committee Wednesday.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said although he is opposed to abortion, the issue is not among his priorities this year.
“Nobody whose doors I knocked on (this weekend) said abortion was an issue that they wanted us to focus on. They wanted us to focus on economic issues,” Gaetz said.
Florida House committees on Wednesday approved two other bills — Florida’s “Infants Born Alive” and “Unborn Victims of Violence” proposals — which include language that the measures do not involve abortion.
Pro-choice advocates, however, say the unborn victims bill may lay the groundwork for making abortions harder to get.
Both bills are modeled on federal laws.
The unborn victims bill (SB 876, HB 759) would make the death of an “unborn child” a separate crime from any offense committed against the mother, even if the perpetrator was unaware that the woman was pregnant.
The bill mirrors the 2004 federal “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” that establishes a separate offense for harming or killing an unborn child during the commission of certain crimes, including homicide. The Florida proposal, like the federal law, would apply to fetuses at any point in gestational development.
Like the federal law, the bill does not apply to people conducting legal abortions or to mothers themselves.
Florida already has a vehicular homicide law that holds defendants accountable for the death of a “viable fetus” and other laws making separate crimes against an “unborn quick child.” The proposal would replace the terms “viable fetus” and “unborn quick child” with “unborn child.”
Abortion rights advocates say the change in the language is akin to more controversial “personhood” proposals attempting to elevate the status of a fetus to that of an adult human being. They say the changes are an attempt to establish laws that can be used later to whittle away abortion rights.
“It is intended to enshrine in law a certain perspective of when life begins,” said Jordan Goldberg, Center for Reproductive Rights state advocacy counsel. “It creates a structure in the law that is elevating crimes against everything from a fertilized egg, a zygote, to the same level as a crime against a woman. A law that says it’s two different crimes against two different people is walking down a very dangerous road.”
A top official for Americans United for Life, a group that crafts model anti-abortion and pro-life legislation for states, said claims like Goldberg’s “have proved spurious” in the 28 other states that have similar laws in place.
“It would bring Florida into line with what a majority of states have already done. So it’s not controversial in the least,” said Denise Burke, the organization’s vice president of legal affairs.
The other proposal modeled on federal law would require physicians or health care professionals to provide resuscitative care to infants born alive after a botched abortion and require that they be transported to a hospital.
Although a federal law requires that those born alive after a botched abortion receive medical assistance, proponents of the Florida bill say it’s needed because states can’t always rely on federal authorities to enforce the federal law.
“This bill says nothing about the abortion procedure,” Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, the bill’s sponsor and an emergency room physician, told the House Civil Justice Committee Wednesday. The committee approved the bill (HB 1129) by a 10-2 vote.
Under the proposal, the state would immediately take custody of the infant, something Pigman said he would consider modifying in the case of women who seek an abortion for health reasons.
The measure would also require abortion providers to report infants born alive in monthly reports already required to be submitted to the state. Pigman could not answer questions about how often infants are born alive after an abortion.
Even pro-choice lawmakers had a difficult time finding problems with the bill.
Democratic committee member Mike Clelland rejected a Planned Parenthood lobbyist’s arguments that the bill goes too far and inserts politics into the doctor-patient relationship.
“I’ve been pro-choice my whole life. I can’t think of a more sensible bill,” Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, said before voting for the measure.
But Emily Young, a medical student who testified against the bill and two others at House committee meetings Wednesday, said the need for the bill is moot because Florida law already bans third-trimester abortions.
Infants born before 27 weeks of gestation would not survive even with the measures required by the bill, she said.
“It could prolong it but it’s not going to save their lives,” Young said.
None of the Florida measures filed this year are based on AUL model bills, but Burke said her organization offered advise on the unborn victims of violence and infants born alive measures now under consideration.
The AUL model bills are designed to “address specific problems with abortion such as medical risks to women” rather than force a Supreme Court review, Burke said.
States passed nearly 150 “abortion-related protective measures” over the past two years.
Florida passed five abortion-related laws in 2011 but none last year.
Among the five was one requiring women to have an ultrasound before getting the procedure and hear a description of the procedure.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
SB 1056, HB 395: “Florida for Life Act” would make abortions illegal except when the life of the woman is at risk.
SB 1072, HB 845: “Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act” would make abortion illegal if it is based on the gender or race of the fetus. Health care providers would have to swear that an abortion is not being performed because of the race or gender of the fetus or face a $10,000.
SB 876, SB 759: “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” would make death of an “unborn child” a separate crime from any offenses against the mother, even if the perpetrator did not know the woman was pregnant.
SB 1636. HB 1129: “Infants Born Alive Act” would require health care practitioners to provide medical care to an infant born alive after an abortion; terminate rights of parents in the event of an infant born alive after an abortion; make it a crime not to provide care to an infant born after an abortion; and require clinics providing abortions to include the numbers of infants born alive in monthly reports submitted to the state.