Intense, emotional debate over abortion measure now headed to Crist

TALLAHASSEE — In remarkable political theater during the waning hours of the legislative session, House Republicans rammed through a measure Friday to require women seeking an abortion to pay for an ultrasound and hear a doctor give a description of the fetus.

The 76-44 vote came after an intense four-hour debate as tempers flared and lawmakers urged young staff and visitors with children to leave the chamber as critics described the psychological trauma to pregnant women and supporters asserted life began at inception.

Orlando Democrat Scott Randolph brought tears to the eyes of his colleagues as he described his pregnant wife's anguish when she lost a child.

Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel choked up as she talked about missing high school graduation because she was eight months pregnant.

HB 1143 now goes to Gov. Charlie Crist, the newly minted nonpartisan candidate for the U.S. Senate who has vacillated on the abortion issue. In an interview, Crist said he was "pro-life but I don't like imposing my will on other people."

"It concerns me greatly forcing someone to do that, even if they can't afford to do it," he said.

A similar law took effect this week in Oklahoma, where the state Senate overrode the governor's veto, and spurred a lawsuit and complaints from patients.

Here in Florida, state Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, added the abortion language Wednesday to an innocuous health care bill dealing with medical billing and nursing homes.

The legislation now also includes a prohibition against the use of state or federal dollars for abortions and another provision that prevents Florida from enacting an insurance mandate and bolsters the attorney general's health care lawsuit against President Barack Obama.

Even before it passed, Democratic lawmakers began urging Crist to strike the bill down.

"I want to have that independent governor think about what the people want . . . and veto this bill," pleaded Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.

But Rep. Chris Dorworth, a Lake Mary Republican who once supported Crist, countered: "If he vetoes this bill, he's saying the millions of babies who will be terminated from this are not people. I know he's a man of character and he won't do that."

Under current law, pregnant women must get an ultrasound before an abortion in the second or third trimester. But the legislation requires it for the first trimester as well, when a medical abortion typically involves taking a pill. The only exceptions are women at risk of significant medical harm or victims of rape or domestic abuse. All women could choose not to view the ultrasound if they sign a form but still must hear about the fetus.

According to state statistics, doctors performed more than 86,000 abortions in Florida in 2008.

Friday's debate touched every aspect of the issue with Republicans relying on two doctors and three women to explain the bill. On the Democratic side, more than a dozen lawmakers spoke against.

"Until you start growing ovaries or have them, you don't need to be involved in making a decision about what women do with their bodies," said Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole.

Republican Alan Hays unmasked the debate by invoking the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision for killing more than 50 million babies. "How can you find the Holocaust so revolting and be opposed to this bill," the Umatilla Republican said.

The remarks drew rebuke from House Speaker Larry Cretul and Hays later apologized in private.

A number of lawmakers expressed concern about mandating that pregnant women pay for an ultrasound, which typically costs $100 to $300, even if they are too poor.

Republicans initially maintained the measure was necessary because they received calls from women who were not allowed to see the ultrasound, but eventually conceded that the goal was to reduce the number of abortions.

The bulk of the rhetoric focused on the political arguments about privacy and the role of the state.

"Is it the state's right to decide which procedures a woman should have or is it a doctor's right?" asked Rep. Yolly Roberson, D-Miami.

"It's a traditional function of the state to take care of the health care of Floridians," responded Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

One of the six Republicans to vote against the abortion amendment was Rep. Ed Homan, a Tampa doctor. Three Democrats voted for the language.

"My objection to this amendment is the intrusion of government to the practice of medicine," Homan said. "The core issue in this bill is about ideology, it is not about better health care."

Stargel personalized the debate when she described considering an abortion when she became pregnant in high school.

"All that we are asking in this bill is that the women have the facts," she said. "That this is a baby, that it has a heart beat. That it is not a tadpole."

Randolph sniffled as he described the pain of looking at his wife's ultrasound image as doctors suggested a medical condition might necessitate an abortion.

"We knew the facts," he said. "We knew the heart chamber was slowly filling with fluid. We didn't need to be told that the fetus was slowly dying inside my wife's womb."

He then ripped into the privacy argument and Republican's hypocrisy.

"This year you want government so small that it can fit between's a woman's leg and under her uterus," he said. "I know I haven't changed anybody's vote here today because this body is controlled more by ideology than empathy."

Times researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

How Tampa Bay area lawmakers voted

The House

By a 76-44 vote Friday, the House passed HB 1143, requiring most women to have an ultrasound before getting an abortion, banning government funds for abortions and prohibiting government from requiring people to buy health insurance. How area lawmakers voted:

Yes: Ambler, R-Tampa; Burgin, R-Tampa; Frishe, R-St. Petersburg; Galvano, R-Bradenton; Glorioso, R-Plant City; Hooper, R-Clearwater; Legg, R-Port Richey; McKeel, R-Lakeland; Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs; Reagan, R-Bradenton; Schenck, R-Spring Hill; Schultz, R-Homosassa; Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel

No: Anderson, R-Dunedin; Cruz, D-Tampa; Culp, R-Tampa; Heller, D-St. Petersburg; Homan, R-Tampa; Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg; Long, D-Seminole; Reed, D-Tampa; Rouson, D-St. Petersburg

THE SENATE

By a 23-16 vote Thursday, the Senate passed HB 1143. How area lawmakers voted:

Yes: Crist, R-Tampa; Dockery, R-Lakeland; Fasano, R-New Port Richey; Storms, R-Valrico

No: Justice, D-St. Petersburg; Jones, R-Seminole; Joyner, D-Tampa

Intense, emotional debate over abortion measure now headed to Crist 04/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 12:59am]

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