Fate of abortion access in FL: Some young people want more info and influence on the issues

By: - September 6, 2023 7:00 am

Abortion rights-activists with Occupy Tally gather on April 14, 2023 to protest a a recently signed six-week abortion ban. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

This is the second in a two-article series.

Alexa Matos didn’t know about Florida’s abortion history until she tracked the six-week abortion ban for a state politics class at the University of South Florida. At her high school, reproductive health education focused solely on abstinence, she said.

“I didn’t even learn a lot of what was going on in our government and how it would affect us,” Matos said during an interview with the Florida Phoenix. Now, she advocates for abortion rights through her university’s Planned Parenthood chapter.

College students who both oppose and support abortion rights told the Phoenix their high schools lacked instruction on reproductive issues related to the state’s privacy clause, which became enshrined in the Florida Constitution in 1980. In fact, Florida’s existing health standards for K-12 schools don’t mention abortion at all.

“Civics education definitely could be better,” said Fabrizio Gowdy, a student at Florida State University who is anti-abortion. “I don’t remember ever really learning specifically about specific clauses and amendments in the state constitution. There’s a lot about the federal [U.S.] Constitution but very little about the state constitution.”

The basis of his opposition to abortion comes from his Roman Catholic background and conversations he had with his father, who is a lawyer, Gowdy said.

The students said their previous knowledge of abortion was limited to Roe v. Wade — the nearly 50-year case the U.S. Supreme Court overturned last year, ending federal abortion protections — and information from social media.

“Advocates for reproductive rights have these conversations online like following the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” University of Florida student Ashley Sanguino said. “I think that really helped further that base of information. But previously, I had no clue about Florida’s Constitution and its history with the privacy clause … that’s just something that hasn’t really been taught.”

Only the beginning

USF St. Petersburg student Alexa Matos (right) collected signatures on May 13 for the ballot initiative to enshrine abortion access in the state constitution. Photo courtesy of Matos.

Now, some young people are turning to the future of reproductive freedom in Florida. 

“My mother, she was all by herself — it was just us two girls — and she really pushed me to make sure that the women before us have come so far to fight for our place in this world, so we’re not going to have that taken away,” Matos said. “So, when Roe v. Wade was overturned, I knew that this was going to be the beginning of something much bigger.”

At issue is a legal challenge to Florida’s 15-week abortion ban, which also connects to a six-week ban and the privacy clause in the state’s Constitution that states:

“Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life … .”

The Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Sept. 8 on the abortion issues and could reverse the course the court set more than 30 years ago.

Gowdy was an intern during the last Legislative session for the anti-abortion advocate group Florida Voice for the Unborn. He’d like to see the six-week ban go into effect but would prefer that anti-abortion measures go through voters.

“I’d like to see pro-life efforts be enacted more through the Legislature, which it was this session, but also through the voters,” he said. “I think it gives them more legitimacy when it has the voters’ approval instead of judicial action.”

Florida’s landscape

If the six-week ban comes to fruition, Florida would be on par with neighboring Georgia. But for now, Florida has greater access to abortion than other states in the Southeastern region of the country.

Floridians Protecting Freedom, the group that launched a pro-abortion initiative in May, has collected more than 600,000 signatures of the nearly 900,000 it needs by Feb. 1, according to its website. Even if the campaign yields that many signatures, the Florida Supreme Court ultimately decides if the proposed amendment will make it to the ballot in November.

“This is an issue about individuals being able to make their choices without government interference in their personal medical decisions,” said Kara Gross, legislative director for the ACLU of Florida. “This is something that really is what Floridians want and need. 

Organizers of a citizens’ initiative guaranteeing access to abortion held a news conference in May 8, 2023, in Tallahassee. The ACLU’s Kara Gross is at the lectern. Credit: Michael Moline

“Unfortunately, our elected officials are taking away our constitutional rights and our right to be able to make these decisions for ourselves. This amendment is going to put that power back in the hands of the people to be able to make those determinations for themselves.”

Although Florida Planned Parenthood affiliates brought the legal challenge to court — alongside other abortion providers in the state — their focus is also on the ballot initiative to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution.

“We’re in a different landscape now where it’s being challenged. We’re already at 15 weeks, we’re probably going to be looking at six weeks pretty soon,” said Jordan Bryant-Bodden, a Youth Organizer at Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida. “So, it’s kind of just shifting away from that and more so talking about our ballot initiative.”

Meanwhile, Florida Voice for the Unborn plans to combat the messaging of the pro-abortion petition. Andrew Shirvell, president of the group, said its “Decline to Sign” campaign is meant to mobilize anti-abortion individuals.

The group’s website states that anti-abortion advocates will go to the routine signature gathering sites of the pro-choice initiative to push the Human Life Protection Amendment, which aims to get constitutional protection for “the God-given right to life of the preborn individual.”

“We are trying to make sure that the pro-abortion side doesn’t use trickery and other deceitful means to try to get voters to sign this petition when they otherwise wouldn’t be inclined to,” Shirvell said. “So, our campaign is ‘Declined to Sign’ right now. During this petition-gathering phase, we’re asking Floridians to decline to sign this petition.”

Emphasis on the future

Bryant-Bodden got involved with Planned Parenthood through the chapter at her alma mater Florida A&M University, so she understands the hunger young people have to make their voices heard.

“A lot of the time young people nowadays are super politically motivated, right? So, it’s like I have someone who has time, and I have someone who’s motivated and they’re mad, right? It’s the perfect combination,” she said. “Also, it’s just like the next generation of people, the next generation of voters, next generation of leaders, next people making decisions about health care. It’s important to tap into them that way, as well.”

Students such as Matos and Sanguino, who is a member of the Planned Parenthood chapter at the UF, are collecting signatures. The chapters plan to ramp up signature collections at their respective campuses during the fall semester. Matos estimated that her chapter collected 50 signatures while tabling in downtown St. Petersburg on Aug. 22.

For the two, it has been saddening to see reproductive freedom diminishing, they said.

“The work has been put in, yet we still have the landscape that we have right now with abortion,” Sanguino said. “So, in some ways, it can be disappointing to see that this right that is so fundamental to people’s health is now being compromised decades later. But, again, as somebody who’s very involved in community organizing, I always put the emphasis on the future.”

The two are among a majority of younger people who agree that abortions should be legal. In 2022, 74 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 29 said all or most abortions should be allowed, according to the Pew Research Center. A Gallup poll stated that 64 percent of adults of that same age group identified as pro-choice this year. 

But since the beginning of the 15-week ban, the number of abortions in the state has risen. Last year, there were 2,764 more abortions than in 2021, according to data from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. Between 2021 and 2022, the rate of people traveling to the state to get an abortion increased by nearly 40 percent, according to the agency’s data. 

As of the end of July, the agency reported a total of 44,475 abortions with nearly 4,000 for people who don’t live in the state.

‘I wasn’t always pro-life’

Acknowledging the widespread pro-abortion sentiments within his generation, Gowdy said: “The culture teaches us to be pro-choice, pro-abortion, and then see abortion not as a moral issue but just like a personal decision. I think that’s kind of the general attitude of most young people, but I’m hopeful that with time that will change.”

Students like Gowdy are working to create anti-abortion spaces on college campuses. FSU senior Serena Barker didn’t have a strong opinion about abortion until she met representatives from Students for Life of America at a Republican convention, she said. Barker started a chapter of the anti-abortion group on her campus as a second-year student. 

During this year’s legislative session, Barker interned for state Sen. Erin Grall, who sponsored the six-week abortion ban. (Grall also sponsored the 15-week abortion ban in 2022 while in the state House.)

“A lot of times the arguments are the same coming from both sides and so you get kind of trapped in an echo chamber on either side, where you’re hearing the same arguments over and over,” Barker said. “I think I have a slightly different perspective, not only because I’m female but also because I’m not religious. I wasn’t always pro-life. I didn’t grow up pro-life. Most of my friends and family aren’t, and so it’s something that I really look into just scientifically and morally without having any other factors that were affecting me.

“A lot of times when I’m talking to my friends or family, I’m able to kind of explain the situation from a different point of view. Hopefully, for them to understand why it’s such a big deal to us that we need to protect the most innocent version of life.”

Meanwhile, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America is following the pro-choice ballot initiative “very closely,” state policy director Katie Daniel told the Phoenix in a phone interview.

“Our goal is going to be to educate Floridians about the reality of the ballot initiative. How it would take away the legislative process, how it would make Florida an abortion destination, which sadly it has been in the past, we’ve been moving away from that,” she said.

“The reason it was that before was because of the court. The people have passed laws to prevent that. Over time, they’ve just been stopped by courts. So, to put this on the ballot, and keep that power in the hands of courts and take it away from the people long-term, would be a real mistake.”

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Jackie Llanos
Jackie Llanos

Jackie is a recent graduate of the University of Richmond. She has interned at Nashville Public Radio, Virginia Public Media and Virginia Mercury.