TALLAHASSEE — Election-year politics and an assertive Republican majority passed two bills in the Florida House on Friday that are certain to score points with a conservative base.
One bill would tighten the state's already restrictive abortion laws. A second would add penalties to anyone convicted of a crime if the act harms a fetus. Similar legislation passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate when abortion-rights advocates argued it was intended to create "personhood" rights for fetuses.
This year, proponents of the Florida Unborn Victims of Violence Act actively distanced themselves from the abortion debate and made their case using the story of a Tampa Bay woman whose ex-boyfriend tricked her into taking pills that caused her to miscarry.
House Bill 59 passed 74-42 along party lines. Its companion bill awaits a Senate vote. "This bill simply extends to an unborn child the same rights and protections that the woman who is carrying the child is also provided," said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna.
"This bill has nothing to do with any war on anyone, woman or anyone else," said Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights. "It has to do with the defense of an unborn child."
Democrats argued that if this bill became law it could be used in circumstances where a woman who didn't know she was pregnant does something others deem reckless and loses the baby.
"How are you going to know that the miscarriage was caused by some event, even months ago?" asked Rep. Elaine J. Schwartz, D-Hollywood. "This is much too broad. It's unenforceable and it's part of a war on women."
The abortion proposal, HB 1047, bans abortions if a doctor has determined a fetus would be viable outside the womb, replacing the state's existing ban on abortions in the third trimester. It passed 70-45, mostly along party lines. One Democrat voted "yes" and four Republicans voted "no."
The Senate companion has one more committee before a floor vote.
"Every developing life deserves this, but certainly we can agree as a civilized society that a viable life deserves a chance," said Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake. "We owe our children better."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that states may restrict abortions prior to fetal viability, which is usually around 23 weeks of gestation. Twenty-one states currently have such limits on the books.
Current Florida law prohibits abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for the mother's health. The new bill would remove the exception for emotional health.
In 2013, 85 abortions were performed due to the emotional health of the mother, according to the state Department of Health.
More than 90 percent of abortions were done before 12 weeks, noted Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, adding that another law is not needed. "Just on that alone, the statute we have here is doing what it is designed to do,'' he said.
Other opponents said they feared the legal ramifications of the new bill, such as what might happen to a physician who makes an error in determining viability.
Dr. Vanessa Cullins, a Jacksonville-based vice president for external medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the Legislature should not be passing laws that further limit a woman's right to choose.
"The decisions about pregnancy are private, personal decisions, and politicians don't belong in the midst of those decisions," she said. "It's none of the politicians' business."
HB 1047 requires doctors to perform a medical examination, and if the fetus is found to be viable, an abortion is allowed only if the woman's life is at risk or she faces serious risk of injury. A second doctor's opinion is required before such exceptions are granted unless there is an emergency.
Rep. Hazelle Rogers, D-Lauderdale Lakes, called the bill a violation of her rights.
"Do not take away my choices as a woman," Rogers said. "Leave my choices between me, my doctor, and my god."
Friday was the latest in a string of recent legislative victories for antiabortion activists in the United States. Last year, Texas passed some of the toughest restrictions, including a requirement that doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. With many hospitals, some owned by religious organizations, refusing to issue those privileges, the number of abortion facilities is expected to drop from 34, when the bill became law, to six, when the law is fully implemented this September.
In 2013 alone, 22 Republican-controlled states adopted 70 different restrictions, many of which make it difficult for women to get abortions in the regions where they live, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a private research group that supports abortion rights.
On Friday, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said he was proud of the Legislature's record on abortion.
"Historically, the Florida House is a very pro-life caucus," Weatherford said. "And this is just a continuation of us pushing what we believe is the right thing to do for the citizens of Florida."