TALLAHASSEE — Facing an intense public outcry, Charlie Crist confronts possibly the toughest decision of his term as governor: whether to sign or veto a bill antiabortion advocates call the "most significant pro-life measure that's ever happened in Florida's history."
The high-stakes verdict holds political implications for Crist's nonpartisan U.S. Senate campaign and highlights a polarizing issue that the candidate would rather avoid, given his mixed record on abortion.
Much like a teacher accountability measure Crist vetoed earlier this year, the health care bill (HB 1143) is generating fervent emotions on both sides of the debate.
To date, about 6,300 people have called or e-mailed the governor to share opinions, with nearly 80 percent asking for a veto. A statewide rally to kill the bill is planned for next week.
The legislation — forced through by House Republicans at the 11th hour of the legislative session — requires a woman seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound and listen to a doctor describe the fetus.
It also prohibits private health insurers from covering abortions if the plan is subsidized by the federal or state government. This includes policies offered through exchanges and tax breaks to small businesses that provide coverage, as designed in the recently approved federal health care law.
Crist appears increasingly likely to veto the abortion bill, expressing reservations about the language even before it makes it to his desk. Once he receives it, he has 15 days to decide.
"I'm concerned about it," Crist said Wednesday in St. Petersburg. "Even though I'm pro-life I don't want to impose my will on others."
According to state statistics, doctors performed more than 86,000 abortions in Florida in 2008.
The controversial provisions of the bill require physicians to "contemporaneously review and explain the live ultrasound images" before a pregnant woman gives consent for an abortion.
A woman can decline to view the image if she signs a form, but it's unclear in the legislation whether a doctor must still describe the fetus. The only exception is for women who provide documentation to confirm the abortion is medically necessary or they are the victim of rape, incest or domestic violence.
Supporters say this is just giving women the full picture before they make a decision; opponents call it an unnecessary intrusion that traumatizes patients.
The prohibition on using government money to pay for abortions largely codifies current federal law. But it goes a step further to include language similar to what U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, proposed in the new federal health care law. The Stupak provision didn't make it in the final law, but Florida lawmakers put it in their bill despite threats of litigation.
That means women with subsidized health care plans would need to buy extra coverage or pay out-of-pocket for an abortion.
Whether to allow it to become law is a monumental decision, said Sheila Hopkins with the Florida Catholic Conference, especially given Crist's fluctuating stance on the issue
"This bill is a test for him," said Hopkins, whose group is pushing Crist to sign the bill.
As a state senator in 1995, Crist cast the deciding vote to defeat a waiting period for all abortions. And three years later, in a U.S. Senate campaign, he wrote in a St. Petersburg Times questionnaire: "I am pro-choice, but not pro-abortion."
In his campaign for governor, Crist said he "would prefer not to change (abortion) law, I would rather change hearts."
But in January, he reversed himself as his campaign tacked to the right against conservative rival Marco Rubio.
Crist's campaign issued a statement, saying he "will fight for pro-life legislative efforts."
A veto fits the moderate image he is cultivating in his independent campaign, but it could carry significant baggage. The bill's backers suggest a veto would indicate that Crist supports letting tax dollars pay for abortions.
"He would be the first governor ever to allow for federal and state funding of abortions," said John Stemberger, the president of the Florida Family Policy Council, an antiabortion group.
But a coalition of groups pushing for a veto sees it differently.
"The governor can still maintain opposition to abortion rights with a veto," said Howard Simon, the executive director of ACLU Florida. "He should be offended by the Legislature dictating medical practice."
Echoing a concern Crist expressed in his veto of the teacher merit pay bill (SB 6), Simon said the abortion bill is the product of a flawed process. The Senate introduced the language with three days left in session and House lawmakers blocked amendments and limited debate, even though it was never heard by a committee.
Simon also suggested it's a good political move because those supporting the bill "aren't going to vote for him any way."
"Why is this not SB6 all over again?" he asked, noting the jolt it gave Crist's campaign. "He has a lot to gain by vetoing the bill."
Times staff writer Adam Smith and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.