Pro choice activists in front of the Florida Supreme Court on September 8, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)
Security was tight outside of the Florida Supreme Court on Friday, before, during and after the seven justices heard oral arguments in Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida v. State of Florida, the legal challenge to Florida’s 15-week abortion ban that went into effect in July of 2022.
At around 10:45 a.m, more than a half-hour after the legal proceeding had concluded, small groups of both abortion rights supporters and opponents stood on the sidewalk in front of the court exchanging fierce chants towards each other, though they were separated about twenty feet away.
“Let their hearts beat!” chanted the group representing Students for Life Action, who are activists opposed to abortion.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, abortion bans have got to go!” came the response from the pro-choice group.
“Abortion hurts women! Women deserve better,” later came the response.
“Pro life is a lie, you don’t care if people die!” the pro-choice group shouted back.
The chants were combative in what has been one of the most divisive political issues in America for decades.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book told reporters outside the courtroom that while she thought that ACLU attorney Whitney White, representing Planned Parenthood, made a strong case to throw out the 15-week law, there are other factors at play that make her believe that the court will uphold the 2022 measure. If that happens, the measure would then convert in 30 days to the six-week abortion ban that the 2023 Florida Legislature passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed earlier this year.
“I think that when one of the justices called Roe ‘an abomination,’ we have no doubts about the leaning of this court,” she said, referring to when Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz used that phrase at one point during the hearing, an epithet that social conservatives have said for decades in reference to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the federal right to an abortion in America.
But a 20-year-old abortion rights advocate from Orlando who only wanted to be identified by her first name of Stella said that she felt that Planned Parenthood’s arguments landed stronger in the courtroom.
“I honestly think that the state fumbled a lot. I didn’t think their argument was very strong at all, especially considering all the resources that they were given to present this argument,” she said.
Five of the seven current justices sitting on the court were appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, but Stella said she hoped that the justices would tune out politics and concentrate on the legal arguments. “It’s in the hands of the judges now and if they’ll actually listen to the facts of the case and what was presented, then we hope that they come out with a just ruling.”
Anti-abortion advocates such as Anthony Verdugo from the Christian Family Coalition, Andrew Shirvell from Florida Voice for the Unborn and John Stemberger from the Florida Family Policy Council were in attendance inside the courtroom. Stemberger has written extensively about how he believes that the right to privacy clause in the Florida Constitution does not pertain to a right to an abortion, but before the arguments began, he expressed some caution about how he felt the justices would come down on the issue.
“There’s a lot of nuance here,” he said. “It’s not a straightforward case.”
Sally Mishkin drove up from Broward County to hear the oral arguments in the case. She says she was elated when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in 2022.
“I believe that abortion is murder,” she said. “You’re taking a life. And I believe that when a murder is committed it has a significant impact in society. So I’m here, not only fighting for the children, but I’m fighting for our nation.”
Andy Secola is the Florida regional coordinator for Students for Life America and was heading the group Students for Life Action on Friday.
The 33-year-old Bradenton resident says he’s only been involved in the movement against abortions in Florida for the past three years. He supports the six-week abortion ban passed this year and says the 15-week abortion law is too lenient.
“That’s almost four months. They can feel pain,” he says referring to fetuses at that stage of a pregnancy. “They make the same facial expressions that you and I make. And even that’s too late and not acceptable to Planned Parenthood. So we’re really hoping that the justices can really pull through and support life.”
(According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “science conclusively establishes that a human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after at least 24–25 weeks.”)
Tampa resident Ben Braver, 21, said the issue is about human rights.
“It’s about a person’s right to self-determination,” he said. “It’s about the right to bodily autonomy, and right now the state is trying to take away people’s rights. We’ve seen this as a consistent pattern from the DeSantis administration. Dehumanizing people, taking away their rights and turning them into objects for him to win the presidency.”
Southwest Florida Republican state Sen. Erin Grall, an attorney, was the sponsor of the 15-week ban in the House and the six-week abortion ban in the Senate, over the past two legislative sessions. She sat up close in the courtroom during the oral arguments on Friday.
“I think (the justices) have some evidence to consider that has not been before the court before, so I look forward to their decision and believe that it will have an effect on how the privacy clause has been interpreted in Florida for the last number of decades,” she said after the hearing.
Pro-choice advocates like Senator Book say that while they may not like the decision that the court will rule in this case, she takes solace about the proposed constitutional amendment that may go before Florida voters in 2024 that would guarantee a woman’s right an abortion up until fetal viability, which has been considered at around 24 weeks.
The group advocating for that amendment announced earlier this week that they have collected enough signatures to trigger an automatic review of the ballot language by this same Florida Supreme Court.
“I feel very strongly about our (ballot) language,” Book said on Friday. “I think its sound. I think Floridians are speaking about what is right. To collect over 700,000 petitions in such a short amount of time I think tells where people are.”
According to the state’s Division of Elections website, the proposal has collected just short of 300,000 signatures, but Book said that there are hundreds of thousands more collected that have yet to be verified. The effort needs 891,523 valid signatures by next February and the approval of its ballot language by the Supreme Court to get on the 2024 ballot.
Pro-choice oriented abortion measures have passed in both red and blue states since the overturning of Roe last year, and Book is confident that will happen in Florida next year.
“This isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue,” she says. “I’ve gotten independents and Republicans asking for petitions to get friends to sign. Older women, older generations of women who already fought this battle and are wanting and needing a sense of responsibility to do that again and so again, I believe that our language is sound, but we’re going to see what happens.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.