Senate debate over 6-week abortion ban sparks clash between Jews, Christians

‘I feel like my religion is being persecuted right now,’ senator complains

By: - March 30, 2023 8:16 pm

The Florida Senate debates legislation banning abortions after six weeks’ gestation on March 30, 2023. Credit: Michael Moline

An emotional argument over religious values broke out Thursday as the Florida Senate debated the proposal to ban abortion after six weeks’ gestation, with Jewish senators complaining bitterly that the bill would force fellow Jews to violate religious law.

The drama broke out during a debate on an amendment by Democrat Tina Polsky, who represents part of Broward and Palm Beach counties, to allow exceptions to the ban when “the pregnancy has not progressed to the third trimester and the tenets of the religion that the pregnant woman practices authorize termination of the pregnancy.”

State Sen. Lauren Book, Senate Democratic Leader. Florida Channel screenshot

She argued that her religion, Judaism, requires abortion to preserve the life and health of the pregnant person, and that life begins only when the head of the fetus emerges from the birth canal. Other religions, including Buddhism, Unitarianism, and Episcopalians, also permit abortions, she added.

“I feel like my religion is being persecuted right now,” Polsky said.

“No one is in favor of murder. The issue when does life begin, and there is a religious difference in that definition,” she added. “We need to be clear. State laws that prohibit the right to terminate a pregnancy with no regard for the health and safety of a mother violates Jewish law,” she said.

Democratic leader Lauren Book of Broward County, also Jewish, complained that the state allows religious exemptions to vaccine requirements because of religious qualms.

“Why are we not entitled to the same exemption? Is it because there are fewer of us? It’s not OK,” Book said, dropping her mic on her desk in frustration.

But bill sponsor Erin Grall, described in her Senate bio as Roman Catholic, denied that her bill is religiously motivated, comparing abortion to murders or euthanasia, which the law also punishes.

‘Not a religious issue’

“This is not a religious issue. It is an issue about where we draw the line when it comes to morality. When is it OK to take someone’s life who’s here with us right now? If they’re small? If they’re not useful. If they are no longer contributing — according to whom? Do we let somebody else’s religion decide that that life is not meaningful or valuable? No. We don’t. That’s not what we believe in.”

Erin Grall. Credit: Florida Senate

The chamber’s Republican supermajority voted down more than one dozen Democratic amendments intended to defang the bill (SB 300), which would reduce the period when state law allows abortions from the existing 15 weeks’ gestation to six, before many patients realize they are pregnant.

The day’s activities readied the legislation for a final floor vote, likely next week. The Senate isn’t scheduled to meet on Friday.

Performing or participating in an illegal abortion would be a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $5000 fine. If the patient dies, the penalty would be up to 15 years and a $10,000 fine. Similar legislation (HB 7) is pending in the state House. The measure ranks among a number of Republican priorities during this legislative session. Gov. Ron DeSantis, possibly on the verge of a presidential announcement, has promised to sign it.

The Florida Supreme Court has before it a legal challenge to the 15-week ban, enacted last year. The scheduling in the case makes it unlikely the justices will rule before the scheduled end of the session on May 5. That case tests the breadth of the Florida Constitution’s Privacy Clause; however, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, repealing Roe v. Wade, upheld a Mississippi law similar to the one now under debate in Florida.

Besides limiting the procedure, the bill establishes a $25 million “Florida Pregnancy Care Network” to provide counseling and material assistance to expecting or recent mothers.

No travel money

“A physician may not knowingly perform or induce a termination of pregnancy if the physician determines the gestational age of the fetus is more than six weeks,” the bill reads, unless two doctors certify that in their reasonable medical judgment it’s necessary “to save the pregnant woman’s life or to avert a serious risk of imminent substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman other than a psychological condition.”

A single doctor could sign the certification if a second doctor is not available for consultation. Grall said the provision would avoid cases reported since the Dobbs ruling of doctors refusing to treat life-threatening miscarriages for fear of prosecution.

“I have had calls from constituents that this has happened to — this is not some esoteric, pretend example — that are being sent home to develop sepsis. Is that the intention of the policy, the legislative intent here. I want you to say no,” Book said.

“It is obviously not the intent” Grall responded. “The doctors who have done that have not met their duty to treat the woman.”

Tina Polsky. Credit: Florida Senate

The bill rules out use of telehealth; a doctor would have to perform the procedure in person, even if using abortion-inducing drugs. Those drugs couldn’t be shipped through the mail.

It bars use of state money to pay for abortions or travel for that purpose absent medical necessity. But the bill would bar any abortion during the third trimester, or after 32 weeks.

‘Heartbeat Protection Act’

One amendment the Senate did accept named the bill the “Heartbeat Protection Act,” because of supporters’ disputed claim that the fetal heat begins to beat at around six weeks.

Grall, a Republican representing counties in Southeast Central Florida, and Republican Alexis Calatayud of Miami-Dade County cosponsored another amendment to add victims of human trafficking to the rape and incest victims eligible for abortions up to 15 weeks: doctors would have to report suspicions of trafficking to law enforcement or the evidence would emerge during criminal investigations. That one passed, too.

But Republicans voted down a substitute amendment by Book to name the bill the “Electrical Activity that can be Manipulated to Sound like a Heartbeat through Ultrasound Protection at the Expense of Pregnant People’s Health and Wellbeing Act.”

Another Democratic amendment would have allowed abortions if there’s a risk of “substantial and irreversible physical or mental impairment of a major bodily or psychological function of the pregnant woman.”

Failed amendments

Additional failed Democratic amendments would have:

  • Required audits of centers within the network, plus that they use licensed ultrasound technicians and observe patient confidentiality.
  • Allowed abortion up to the third trimester on the attestation of only one doctor, not two.
  • Allowed abortion up to the third trimester upon a diagnosis by a single doctor of a “fatal fetal abnormality.”
  • Allowed abortion when “The pregnancy has not progressed to the third trimester and the tenets of the religion that the pregnant woman practices authorize termination of the pregnancy.”
  • Allowed abortions for active-duty servicemembers up to the third trimester on the argument that to do otherwise would cause problems for servicewomen and dependents stationed in Florida.
  • Allowed lawsuits against men involved in pregnancies the patient is barred from pursuing if the bill becomes law.
  • Provided $25 million for state efforts to promoted contraceptive services, including for minors.
  • Covered in vitro fertilization services under the state’s health insurance plans.

“We’re trying to make a bad bill better,” Polsky said of the Democrats’ amendments.

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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.