VP Harris in Tallahassee: ‘Can we truly be free if a woman cannot make decisions about her life?’

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks on abortion access in Tallahassee, Fl on Jan. 22, 2023. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

In a direct challenge to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to his back yard Sunday to announce that President Joe Biden was ordering his administration to protect access to abortion-inducing medications.

During a roughly 20-minute address in Tallahassee marking what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Harris mocked DeSantis’ self-described “freedom” agenda as anathema to the struggles of generations of Americans to expand upon the basic rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“Can we truly be free if a woman cannot make decisions about her life? Can we truly be free if a doctor cannot care for her patients? Can we truly be free if families cannot make intimate decisions about the course of their own lives?” the vice president asked an enthusiastic audience.

“And can we truly be free if so-called leaders claim to be, quote, I quote, on the vanguard of freedom while they dare to restrict the freedom of the American people and attack the very foundations of freedom?”

Biden’s memo seeks to protect privacy and abortion access against state limits, including “potential barriers faced by patients seeking legal access to mifepristone or other reproductive healthcare, as well as by providers and entities, including pharmacies, that provide reproductive healthcare in providing mifepristone or other reproductive healthcare, and any recommendations for addressing these barriers.”

The Republican governor frequently invokes his “free state of Florida” rhetoric, which originated from his opposition to face mask and vaccination mandates as COVID-19 raged.

Define ‘freedom’

Harris continued:

“America is a promise. It is a promise of freedom and liberty, not for some but for all. A promise we made in the Declaration of Independence that we are each endowed with the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights were not bestowed upon us; they belong to us as Americans. And it is that freedom and liberty that enabled generations of Americans to chart their own course and decide their own future,” she said.

She described a “march forward to fully realize our promise to complete the unfinished work to secure freedom and liberty to all” — work that included ending slavery, women’s suffrage, the Freedom Rides, and the LGBTQ pride movement.

“Those leaders expanded rights which then advanced the cause of freedom and liberty. And, 50 years ago today, so did those who won a right in the United States Supreme Court to recognize the fundamental, constitutional right of a woman to make decisions about her own body,” Harris said.

The Supreme Court took away that right last summer, she continued, as the audience proclaimed more than once, “It ain’t right.”

The result is that doctors face prison for providing drugs for arthritis because they also can induce abortion; that a 10-year-old girl in Ohio had to travel out of state to obtain an abortion; and that women endured life-threating medical complications because doctors are reluctant to treat miscarriages, Harris said.

These problems are a “direct result of laws designed by extremists — including in states like Florida, with its radical abortion ban” after 15 weeks’ gestation with no exceptions for rape or incest.

‘They spoke with their votes’

She pointed to referenda in states across the country affirming abortion rights following the Supreme Court ruling.

“They spoke with their votes. In essence, they said one does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree that the government should not be telling people what to do with their own bodies.”

Harris opened her speech at about a quarter past noon in The Moon, a concert venue filled to its 1,500-person capacity, according to a Leon County sheriff’s deputy, with energetic, and rowdy abortion-rights supporters responding to the crowd.

Alexis McGill Johnson is the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Speaking before Harris did, she said that abortion rights supporters came from across Florida, including Naples, Sarasota, Orlando, Palm Beach, Lakeland and Tampa.

“You got on buses. You rode in the rain,” she said.

Tallahassee is in North Florida and some consider it a Deep South state as it straddles the Georgia line.

In the venue, there was a backdrop of several U.S flags, plus Florida flags, at least three large screens and music with an upbeat tempo.

And as the crowd got louder, the group yelled out:

“Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Ron DeSantis has got to go.”

Numerous Democrats in the state House and Senate were at the venue, as well as prominent figures such as civil rights lawyer Ben Crump.

Vice President Kamala Harris stands at a lectern at The Moon in Tallahassee, Fl. on Jan. 22, 2023. She discussed abortion access. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Battleground state

The Florida Legislature emerged as a battleground over abortion rights even before a leaked draft U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May 2022 changed the landscape.

In September 2021, House Republican lawmaker Webster Barnaby of Volusia County filed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion bans in Florida and the country. It was HB 167, and would have prohibited abortion care after around six weeks’ gestation.

That initiative landed in a subcommittee but eventually died in the 2022 legislative session. Barnaby was the lone sponsor.

The legislation would have provided financial incentives, allowing private citizens who successfully sue providers or people who otherwise help women get abortions to win judgments of $10,000 per case. Defendants would have to shoulder their own legal costs.

Not only were state Democrats determined to fight the proposal, even some GOP lawmakers were skeptics, including former Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson and state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, who now has succeeded Simpson in running the Senate chamber. They particularly objected to the “private civil enforcement.”

Another attempt to restrict abortion came during the 2022 legislative session — a 15-week ban without exceptions for rape and incest. Sponsoring the legislation, HB 5, was then-House member Erin Grall, who now serves in the state Senate. A Republican, Grall represents Glades, Highlands, Indian River and Okeechobee counties and part of St. Lucie County.

Gov. DeSantis signed the 15-week ban on April 14, 2022. Since then, the governor has been cautious about his wording about abortion restrictions.

The U.S. Supreme Court soon after that overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, establishing a privacy right to abortion, on June 24, 2022.

But abortion rights advocates and Democrats across the nation are on guard for even further restrictions to women’s reproductive rights during the 2023 session.

Just last week, Republican House Speaker Paul Renner signaled that GOP members could push for restrictions, declaring during a press conference: “We have a ‘pro-life’ majority.”

So far, lawmakers have yet to introduce abortion legislation. Renner offered no details about his plans on this score when asked it by reporters in the state Capitol last week.

Passidomo has reiterated that she would consider a 12-week abortion ban that would include exceptions for rape and incest.

This story has been updated to reflect that Biden signed a Jan. 22, 2023 memorandum to key agency chiefs seeking to protect access to mifepristone, which can induce abortions.

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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. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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