TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist rejected a controversial abortion bill Friday, using his veto pen to repudiate the conservative Republicans who elected him and championed the legislation as "the most significant prolife measure in Florida's history."
The legislation required most women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound and listen to a doctor describe the fetus, unless they signed a form to opt out. The bill also included a provision to ensure that tax dollars didn't cover elective abortions.
"This bill places an inappropriate burden on women seeking to terminate pregnancy," Crist wrote in his veto message, saying he put his personal "prolife" views aside in making the decision.
"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," he said.
The antiabortion forces and social conservatives who backed Crist as a GOP governor expressed dismay.
"If you really wanted people to change hearts, what better way than to see a heartbeat," said state Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, the sponsor of the ultrasound provision. "There are a lot of broken hearts today."
"Unborn life will be destroyed at the expense of taxpayers," said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. "The governor lacks a party affiliation. Today we learned that he also lacks a moral compass."
The veto made Crist take a formal stance on abortion at an inopportune time, given the tenacious three-way fight for the U.S. Senate in which Crist is running as an independent.
Crist has vacillated on the issue in his political tenure, calling himself "prochoice" in 1998 and then saying earlier this year (as a Republican candidate) he would "fight for prolife legislative efforts."
Top Republican lawmakers and antiabortion crusaders pounced on the governor's abortion flip-flop, attributing it to election year politics.
"It just shows his trustworthiness is gone," said John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council, who dismissed as "nonsense" Crist's insistence that he is personally against abortion. "I think there's absolutely going to be political consequences."
The only groups left applauding Crist: Democrats and abortion rights advocates, who said the legislation "firmly placed the government between doctors and their patients and resulted in women losing health care coverage they currently have today."
But even some Democrats hit the governor, worried that his shift is designed to align himself with social moderates and liberals to win the election. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat running for Senate, said the governor "can never escape his antichoice past."
"All prochoice women of this state will be supporting Kendrick Meek," said Barbara DeVane, a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women. "He's not a Charlie-come-lately."
Crist's action marks the third veto of a high-priority bill passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Earlier, Crist rejected campaign finance legislation he said would reinstate lawmaker "slush funds" and vetoed a controversial teacher merit pay bill. Overall, Crist vetoed 17 bills and struck a number of spending provisions from the state budget.
Senate Republicans added the abortion language to a nursing home bill in the waning days of the legislative session, circumventing the committee process. It passed the Senate by a 23-16 margin and the House on a 76-44 vote after one of the most heated debates in recent years.
As with the education bill, the abortion measure (HB 1143) generated fierce lobbying. Crist's office received more than 65,000 calls, most asking him to sign the bill. House Republicans delayed giving Crist this final bill until Monday to give supporters time to try to persuade him to sign.
But the phone call figures didn't match a May poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the Times/Herald and Bay News 9 that showed 55 percent of voters wanted him to veto the bill, while 31 percent wanted him to sign it.
According to state statistics, doctors performed more than 86,000 abortions in 2008.
Following the lead of 20 other states with similar laws, Florida's measure would have required physicians to "contemporaneously review and explain the live ultrasound images" before a pregnant woman gives consent for an abortion in the first trimester — when the vast majority of terminations occur. In the second and third trimester, state law already requires doctors to perform ultrasounds before abortions and provide a less-detailed description of the fetus.
A woman could have declined to view the image if she signed a form, but it's unclear whether a doctor would still need to describe the fetus. The law made an exception for women who provide documentation to confirm that the abortion is medically necessary or that they are the victim of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking.
The bill also would have put strict restrictions on private health care insurers in Florida barring them from offering plans that cover the cost of elective abortions. It invoked a provision in the new federal health care law that let states prohibit companies from offering subsidized plans with abortion coverage.
With the veto, Republicans contend Crist will make Florida taxpayers pay for elective abortions for the first time. But the assertion is in doubt because the federal health care law includes barriers to prevent federal funding of abortions by requiring women to pay separately for plans that pay for the procedure.
Another component of the legislation would have bolstered the state's pending lawsuit against the federal health care law.
Crist didn't address these separate issues in his veto message. But he said "medical or fiscal barriers" are not appropriate to prevent a woman from "following through on her constitutionally protected decision to end a pregnancy."
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.