TALLAHASSEE — A sharply divided Florida House voted Wednesday to require women to submit to an ultrasound before obtaining a first trimester abortion.
The measure, which could amount to the most significant abortion legislation in years, now heads to the Florida Senate where its powerful sponsor, Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said he's confident it will pass.
Supporters, including House sponsor Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, say their goal was to strengthen Florida's informed consent abortion law, which requires women to be fully informed of the consequences of having an abortion.
"Informed consent is not a partisan issue," Traviesa said at the end of three hours of emotional debate and a 70-45 vote. "Why should any of us think women should be denied information vital to their decision and vital to their care?"
Traviesa said 12 other states already have ultrasound requirements.
But opponents called the bill an erosion of a woman's right to choose and a case of election-year theatrics to divert attention from the pressing cuts in basic services due to a revenue shortfall.
"Why are we again debating this bill at a time when we have a budget crisis and property taxes are out of control?" asked Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who said Republicans were more concerned about "appealing to a base" than helping expectant mothers.
Five Republicans, including four from the Tampa Bay area, crossed their party's leadership to vote against the bill; one Democrat voted for it.
Gov. Charlie Crist's office had no immediate comment on whether he would sign or veto the measure.
The bill (HB 257) allows a pregnant woman to sign a waiver declining to see the ultrasound image and has exceptions for cases of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking, if supported by official records.
Ultrasounds, or sonograms, are already required before second- and third-trimester abortions.
The bill would also bolster the state law that requires parents to be notified when a minor daughter seeks an abortion. Under the bill, minors seeking to bypass that parental notification by petitioning the court also would have to be represented by a guardian ad litem — literally "a guardian for the suit" — in addition to a lawyer.
Another provision of the bill that would have required a 24-hour waiting period was removed amid resistance from moderates, especially in the Senate.
"Planned Parenthood is extremely concerned and opposed to this dangerous piece of legislation," said Adrienne Kimmell, a lobbyist for the group. "It ties the hands of doctors from being allowed to make the best decisions for their patients."
Kimmell called the requirement for guardians ad litem for minors seeking abortions a "disturbing concept" because too few legal advocates are available to represent abused and neglected children in Florida.
An effort by Democrat Ron Saunders of Key West to weaken the bill went down to defeat on a 72-43 vote. The amendment said women have a constitutional right to an abortion before a fetus becomes viable and may do so "without undue interference from the state."
The Senate version (SB 2400) will be heard in committee next week, and Webster said he was confident of its passage. "We're looking at using the latest technology," Webster said in reference to ultrasound procedures.
Opponents raised numerous arguments, from who would have to pay for the cost of an ultrasound to whether the law would violate provisions of a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. The case upheld key elements of a Pennsylvania parental notification abortion law, but said states cannot impose "undue burdens" on a woman's right to an abortion.
"The question is, does it pose an undue burden? That is the only relevant constitutional question," Traviesa said. At one point, Traviesa quoted from affidavits filed by women who said they would not have undergone abortions if they had more information.
If the bill passes and Crist signs it, even supporters say it's sure to face a constitutional fight. "It's very commonplace for any bill that amends Chapter 390 (the abortion statute) to be challenged," said Mike McCarron of the Florida Catholic Conference.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.