TALLAHASSEE — Between a conservative Legislature and a more conservative governor, there's a concentrated effort this year to tighten Florida's abortion laws.
From reviving a controversial measure to require a woman to receive an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion to a blanket ban that would pose a legal challenge to Roe vs. Wade, at least 18 bills are filed.
"It's an unprecedented year," said Stephanie Kunkel, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.
The number puts Florida among the top five states in the country for antiabortion bills, Kunkel said. (West Virginia is first with more than 30.)
"There are some that are just chipping away at a woman's right to choose and there are some that are wholesale assaults," said Danielle Prendergast, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the bills. "Given the makeup and the tone of this Legislature, I think more will pass than may have passed in previous sessions."
The push contrasts heavily with last year when the ultrasound bill came under intense, emotional debate and was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who said, "Personal views should not result in laws that unwisely expand the role of government and coerce people to obtain medical tests or procedures that are not medically necessary."
The most significant proposal is a bill from Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, that would challenge the U.S. Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a woman's right to choose. But without a companion in the Senate, it isn't likely to progress.
Other bills, however, are moving quickly, and three made it through committee Tuesday, including the ultrasound measure that requires a woman to get one before undergoing an abortion and be asked if she wants to review the results.
"This is about the right of a woman considering the termination of a pregnancy to possess all of the relevant information made available to her so she can make a fully informed decision," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, told members of the House Health and Human Services Quality Subcommittee. "Knowledge is never a bad thing."
Opponents, though, say the measure interferes with the doctor-patient relationship and forces doctors to perform a procedure that may not be medically necessary.
Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, called out Republican members for voting earlier in the day to prohibit laws requiring individuals to have health insurance because it intrudes on the doctor-patient relationship and then supporting the ultrasound bill.
"Is this legislation not practicing an ideology of convenience or are we just being hypocritical?" he asked.
The bill passed along party lines.
The Health and Human Services Committee passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, that would limit third-trimester abortions, require doctors performing abortions to receive ethics training and mandate that abortion clinics be owned by physicians.
And the Senate banking and insurance committee passed a bill that would prohibit private insurers from covering abortions if the policy is paid for using any public money.
"This bill does not prohibit women from making the choice to terminate a pregnancy," said Sen. Stephen Wise, the Jacksonville Republican who sponsored the legislation. "This bill says that the taxpayers will not pay for an abortion."
Kunkel said she's particularly troubled by a proposed constitutional amendment backed by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, that would prohibit using public money for health insurance policies that include coverage of abortion (already the situation in many cases). It provides no exception in cases of rape or incest, if the pregnancy would jeopardize a mother's health, or if the fetus is not developing properly.
"It's not a lot of cases, but the cases it prohibits coverage for are particularly tragic," Kunkel said. "They are things like lethal anomalies, or a woman with cancer who needs chemotherapy so maybe she couldn't get her treatment paid for because it might end the pregnancy. These are real and awful cases."
Similarly, a bill sponsored by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks gestation, provides no exceptions for rape, incest and health issues.
Called the "Pain-capable Unborn Child Protection Act," that bill reasons that an abortion shouldn't be performed at a gestational stage when the unborn child might experience pain. Current law allows abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy.
Kunkel said the Legislature's priorities are off.
"The focus should be on strengthening the economy and creating jobs," she said.
Gov. Rick Scott made it clear on the campaign trail that he's all for tightening Florida's abortion laws.
Asked Tuesday about the bills making their way through the Legislature, Scott said: "I let people know my position. I've not surprised people. I'm going to be a pro-life governor."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.