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'Stop the Bans' protesters rally in St. Pete for abortion rights amid rollbacks across U.S.

MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE   |   TimesRachel Brownlee, 35, of Tampa, is pictured wearing a Handmaiden's cap and cape during an abortion rights rally in St. Petersburg on May, 21 2019.
MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | TimesRachel Brownlee, 35, of Tampa, is pictured wearing a Handmaiden's cap and cape during an abortion rights rally in St. Petersburg on May, 21 2019.
Published May 28, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The rising number of states restricting abortions brought about 250 protesters to the St. Petersburg Judicial Building on Tuesday.

"Our bodies, our choice" they chanted at the "Stop the Bans" rally for abortion rights, which was led by Progress Florida in partnership with Pinellas NOW and the St. Petersburg League of Women Voters. Similar rallies were held throughout the nation on Tuesday, including in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Protesters, some wearing bonnets and long red dresses inspired by the novel and TV series "The Handmaid's Tale", gathered early at First Avenue Ave N and Sixth Street N. Cars honked along First Avenue N and the crowd cheered back in support, waiving signs such as: "My body my choice," "Women's rights are human rights" and "Mother by choice, mother for choice."

Some women brought their children. A few men were spread out among the crowd. Nearly all searched for patches of shade during the hot lunch hour.

The local and national rallies were inspired by Alabama's recent passage of a total ban on abortion, which was signed into law on May 16. The state now has the strictest abortion law in the nation, which makes performing abortions a felony crime at any stage of pregnancy, with almost no exceptions.

Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have passed laws that prohibit abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected — about six weeks, before many women learn they're pregnant. Missouri and Louisiana are close to enacting similar bans.

Florida was one of the only Republican-controlled states in the country not to pass an abortion ban this legislative session, according to Ashleigh McGuire with Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

"The integrity of our Constitution and our autonomy over our own bodies is under attack," state Rep. Jennifer Webb, a St. Petersburg Democrat, told the crowd. "This is not a new battle."

Other Democrats also attended, including Mayor Rick Kriseman and state Rep. Ben Diamond. They mingled with the crowd and thanked people for taking the time to participate.

Other speakers included Rev. Andy Oliver of the Allendale United Methodist Church and Linsey Grove, president of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg area.

Sami Gustafson, 31, attended with her two twin boys, just shy of 3 years old. She's been to protests before and believes attending is even more important now that outright bans on abortion are being passed.

"I think it's really important that women maintain the right to their own bodies, to their own lives, rights and choices," Gustafson said. "If you're not prepared and not in a position to take care of children, you shouldn't be forced into it."

None of the laws have taken effect, and all are expected to be halted while legal challenges work their way through the courts.

Anti-abortion activists hope two new conservative justices nominated by President Donald Trump will provide the votes needed for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.

That prospect infuriated protesters in St. Petersburg. Some held back tears and shook with emotion when they talked about the subject.

"I believe the assault on abortion rights is outrageous," Tim Fleishman, 74, of Oldsmar said. "Elections have consequences, and we should never forget that. We're suffering from the results of the elections of 2016."

Deb Camfferman, 64, of St. Petersburg, has in the past stayed home rather then attend rallies. But her growing concern that the country is at a tipping point for abortion rights brought her out to her first rally on Tuesday.

"As I understand it, this is the worst point in history since Roe v. Wade," Camfferman said. "I think it's important we keep showing support and making our voices heard."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at (727) 893-8779 or cjohnston@tampabay.com. Follow @cljohnst.

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