GOP lawmaker files Texas-style bounty-hunter abortion bill in Florida Legislature

Nikki Fried: ‘This bill is dangerous, radical, and unconstitutional’

By: - September 22, 2021 2:36 pm

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks at the Old Capitol building steps to rally against legislation limiting abortion access . Sept. 21, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

A Florida version of the Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and allowing citizens to sue people who provide or enable abortions has landed in Tallahassee in the form of HB 167, filed by Republican Webster Barnaby of Volusia County.

Barnaby’s bill, filed Wednesday, mimics key provisions of the Texas law — for example, forbidding abortions when medical workers use sonography to detect “cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.”

The only specific exemption in the bill is in case of “medical emergency.” However, it retains language in existing law barring public funding for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or when “medically necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman or to avert a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman, other than a psychological condition.”

The bill carries no criminal sanctions, leaving enforcement to private citizens who have reason to suspect neighbors of seeking early abortions. They’d take medical providers to court and, as a reward, they could receive court-ordered judgments of $10,000 per case. Defendants would have to shoulder their own legal costs.

Also liable would be persons who “aid or abet” such abortions, defined as “including, but not limited to, paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise, if the abortion is performed or induced in violation of this chapter, regardless of whether the person knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation of this chapter.”

Many women don’t realize they are pregnant until well after six weeks. The effect of the bill could be to make abortion all but unavailable in Florida; the Texas law forced clinics there to turn away patients, who flooded clinics in neighboring states, according to an Associated Press report.

Barnaby’s appears to be the first abortion-restriction bill filed for the regular legislative session due to  begin on Jan. 11. However, Democrat Anna Eskamani of Orlando has filed HB 6023, which would end the state-mandated 24-hour waiting period for abortions and allow the use of state funds to pay for the procedures.

The Phoenix attempted to contact Barnaby, the House’s only Black Republican, but his Capitol office hasn’t replied to a voice mail message.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that he wants to look into what Texas is doing, but an aide added that he is leery of encouraging citizens to snoop on each other.

However, the governor has joined an attack by the state of Mississippi on Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Casey, key U.S. Supreme Court precedents protecting abortion rights. The case threatens to overturn decades of abortion protections established under Roe and Casey.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Dec. 1 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, stemming from a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks. It has been blocked for now by a lower federal court.

After the high court voted narrowly early this month to let the Texas law go into effect pending further proceedings, Senate President Wilton Simpson told a Tampa Bay broadcaster that “fetal heartbeat” legislation was already in the works in his chamber.

Republican Senate Rules Chair Kathleen Passidomo (seated) and Senate Republican Leader Debbie Mayfield. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Kathleen Passidomo, chair of the Senate Rules Committee and next in line to become Senate President, said during a speech reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that she opposes having citizens sue each other to police abortions.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls also has indicated he might be interested in legislation similar to that in Texas, as the Orlando Sentinel has reported.

All the officials named above are Republicans.

“This gross excuse of a bill attacks women and birthing people who are seeking an abortion before they even know they are pregnant,” Rep. Eskamani said of Barnaby’s bill in a written statement.

“Abortion is health care, abortion is a private medical decision, abortion is personal — and there should be no politicians getting involved between a person and their doctor,” she continued.

“I’ll add that this is an economic issue too: We are already seeing businesses in Texas consider relocating and/or allow their staff to relocate to states that are more welcoming towards reproductive health. We can’t attract a talented, diverse workforce when we attack their rights,” Eskamani added.

On Tuesday, abortion-rights advocates gathered in the Florida Capitol courtyard to hear speeches by Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried and members of the Legislature.

“A Texas-style abortion ban and bounty hunter bill in Florida represents the greatest threat to bodily autonomy and personal freedom in generations,” Laura Goodhue, executive director for the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates,  according to a press release issued on Wednesday.

“We are here to tell legislative leaders in no uncertain terms that we will not stand for this in Florida,” Goodhue said.

“This bill is dangerous, radical, and unconstitutional,” Fried said in a written statement on Wednesday.

“The hypocrisy of this attempt by Gov. DeSantis and Republicans in the state Legislature to take away our rights while at the same time preaching ‘my body, my choice’ when it comes to wearing masks is absolutely disgusting. They have made it abundantly clear by banning masks in schools and refusing to apply for money to help hungry kids that they don’t actually care about children’s lives,” she continued.

“It’s obvious that this is nothing more than a shameless attempt to try to control women and our bodies. To every woman in Florida who sees this news today and is afraid for your rights and your future: I promise you that I will do everything in my power to stop this bill from becoming law.”

The bill asserts that the presence of a “fetal heartbeat” means the pregnancy is likely to proceed to full term. That usually occurs after about six weeks, calculated from the first day of the woman’s last menstrual period.

Doctors, however, say this doesn’t mean the fetus has developed an actual heart, including the four chambers that oxygenate blood and send it into the vascular system, according to a National Public Radio report. That happens at around the tenth week. Similarly, doctors don’t talk about “fetuses” at six weeks; they consider them embryos.

Still, Barnaby’s bill makes a point of eliminating the word “fetus” from most parts of Florida’s abortion law and replacing it with “unborn child.”

The bill specifies that citizens can’t sue women who have undergone abortions.

It says defendants can attempt to argue that they acted in defense of women’s constitutional right to undergo abortions.

However, “the affirmative defense is not available if the United States Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade … or Planned Parenthood v. Casey … regardless of whether the conduct on which the cause of action is based occurred before the United States Supreme Court overruled either of those decisions,” the bill says.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.