The battles over abortion haven’t abated in Florida

By: - April 8, 2019 7:00 am

Rep. Mike Hill, Republican from Pensacola, addressing rally on April 3 in front of the Historic Capitol bldg.

(Updated) Abortion rights activists plan to swarm the state Capitol on Monday, hoping to stave off what one progressive website says “could be the end of any abortion access in the South” if lawmakers have their way.

Just a few days earlier, anti-abortion activists were rallying on the steps of the old Historic Capitol, criticizing their ideological opponents.

State Rep. Tommy Gregory, a freshman Republican from Sarasota, issued a broadside at Planned Parenthood at the rally, calling the abortion provider a leftist “terrorist” organization.

Those remarks were “shameful and inflammatory,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

The incendiary rhetoric illustrates that the battles about abortion haven’t abated in Florida, more than a quarter-century after Dr. David Gunn was killed during an abortion protest outside a Pensacola health clinic in 1993.

Nowadays, anti-abortion groups in Florida are infused with energy, with a new governor who has an anti-abortion stance, and a more conservative-leaning Florida Supreme Court. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently appointed three new justices, likely reshaping the ideology of the high court for a generation.

For abortion rights groups, it’s a fearful time: They no longer possess a sense of security that the state’s high court will strike down anti-abortion legislation as unconstitutional.

The main speaker at last week’s anti-abortion rights rally was former Colorado Republican Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave. She’s now vice president for government affairs for the Susan B. Anthony List, a national organization whose mission is to end legalized abortions in America.

“I look at the statehouses around the country and I see these pro-life bills coming forth, and I am so happy,” she told the crowd of about 40 people who stood behind her on the Old Capitol steps.

“Everyone is watching Florida. You have an opportunity now to stand for life like you’ve not had before. This is not New York. This is not Virginia. This is pro-life Florida!” she said.

“I am excited because I think a sea change is coming,” added Bill Bunkley, president of the Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. At last week’s rally, he touted “a tremendous opportunity for Florida to be a leader in the pro-life movement.”

But the reality is more complex when it comes to the abortion arena in the Legislature.

House Speaker Jose Oliva made a faux pas in February when he used the clinical term “host bodies” five times during an interview with a Miami television station. The remarks reverberated across the state, and Oliva ended up apologizing.

And some of the more far-reaching proposals to limit access to abortions aren’t getting much traction in this year’s session in Tallahassee.

Take for example the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill that was introduced with fanfare earlier this year.

The controversial proposal would ban all abortions after six weeks. State Rep. Mike Hill, a Republican from Pensacola, sponsored the bill and said he felt a “duty” to submit it for consideration.

But Hill acknowledged at last week’s rally that the legislation still hasn’t received a hearing in any committee – never a good sign this deep into the legislative session.

Similar heartbeat bills have been signed into law recently in Kentucky and Mississippi, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to soon sign a version. Republican lawmakers in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Ohio are also debating the issue this spring, according to USA Today.

The laws have been legally challenged, and found to be unconstitutional in every venue, says Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

Rep. Gregory’s own bill in the House, the “Florida Pain-Capable Child Protection Act” would ban all abortions after twenty weeks, but that legislation has yet to get a hearing.

So what is shaping up in Florida on the abortion front is a single bill that could be poised to test out the revamped Florida Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion.

Sponsored by Rep. Erin Grall, a Republican from Vero Beach, the legislation would require parental consent – not just notification — when a minor attempts to get an abortion.

Florida previously had a parental consent law, but it was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 1989, saying the legislation violated a right-to-privacy clause in Florida’s Constitution. The Legislature tried again on a parental notification law, but the Supreme Court struck that down in 2003.

Then in 2004, Floridians approved a Constitutional Amendment allowing the Legislature to create a parental-notification law, which survived a court challenge.

However, Grall’s bill goes further, by prohibiting doctors from conducting abortions unless they receive parental consent or an order from a court waiving the parental consent requirement.

The legislation also would increase the penalty for the crime of infanticide from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, with the potential for the physician who performed the abortion to serve up to five years in prison and be subjected to a $5,000 fine.

“The young person would have a much higher barrier to overcome, especially if they’re in a situation that they simply cannot obtain permission or consent from a parent,” says Planned Parenthood’s Goodhue. She specifically noted that young women could be contending with a difficult family situation.

“It sets up the situation where a judge could deem a teenager as being too immature to have an abortion, but mature enough to have a child,” adds Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The bill advanced in the House Judiciary Committee last week, and its Senate companion bill comes up for the first time in a committee on Monday.

That’s when abortion rights advocates from West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa Bay and other parts of the state are expected to descend on the Capitol and demonstrate against the parental consent bill.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” said Goodhue. “With such limited access to abortion in other southeastern states we can’t afford to have any more restrictions in Florida,” she said in a press release about the demonstrations on Monday.

Not everyone is convinced that the more conservative-leaning justices would look at the right-of-privacy clause in a different light than the former court.

“Even though they’re conservative, they’re still Supreme Court justices, and presumably they still care about the rule of law and the integrity of the judicial system and those could really be undermined if it seems too obvious that they’re changing the law, not based on any Florida Constitutional principle, but based on their own viewpoints,” said University of Miami law professor Corbin.

But both sides – abortion rights supporters and anti-abortion activists – are not likely to become friends any time soon.

At last week’s rally at the Old Capitol, Sarasota. Rep. Gregory said, “Planned Parenthood and abortion activists like them act like terrorist organizations…They attack us. They call our staffs. They harass us. They do everything they can to silence us and intimidate us. That leftist indoctrination operates like a terrorist cell.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani is a Democrat from Orange County who previously served as senior director of public affairs and communications at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

“I would encourage all of my colleagues, especially Rep. Gregory, to visit a Planned Parenthood health center near them,” she said. “This is a great organization that serves women who often have nowhere else to go.”

On Monday afternoon, the Senate Health Policy Committee passed the parental consent bill along party lines.


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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.