A controversial bill passed by the Florida House Wednesday could require minors to have the consent of their parents or guardians before they can have abortions, though the bill has yet to clear several hurdles in the Senate to pass in the final weeks of session.
House lawmakers, after 3 1/2 hours of heated debate tinged with personal anecdotes and references to the Bible, voted for the bill 69-44 largely along party lines. The legislation would add to an existing requirement that minors notify their parents or guardians before an abortion or obtain a judicial waiver that would let them bypass the requirement.
Critics have said House Bill 1335, which is the most substantial change to abortion law the House has heard this session, is an attempt to rekindle a judicial fight before a more conservative state Supreme Court shaped by Gov. Ron DeSantis. But advocates have framed the legislation, along with a handful of other bills broadening “parental rights,” as an effort to strengthen families and ensure abortions are done more safely.
“It is my belief the parent needs to be involved in the decision-making of the child,” sponsor Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, told fellow lawmakers Wednesday.
The legislation would require doctors to have a parent’s or guardian’s consent before they perform an abortion on a minor and bind them to existing requirements to notify them of the procedure. In some extenuating circumstances, minors could seek a waiver from a court instead of obtaining consent.
Those exceptions would include cases where evidence shows minors are likely victims of child abuse or sexual abuse by a parent or guardian, or a judge otherwise decides it is in their best interest. The bill would also allow waivers if judges find “clear and convincing evidence” a minor is mature enough to decide to obtain an abortion.
For minors who go to court seeking a waiver, the bill also sets standards for legal counsel. It also makes not caring for an infant born alive during an abortion punishable as a third-degree felony, rather than its current designation as a first-degree misdemeanor.
Currently in Florida, state law requires that a parent or guardian be notified if a minor wants an abortion. The law carves out exceptions in cases like medical emergencies, and also permits minors to obtain a judicial waiver if they are already parents or fall under similar exceptions.
Of about 70,000 abortions done in the state yearly, about 1,500 are performed on minors.
The issue of parental notification and consent around abortion has had a thorny past. A law that had required parental consent was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 1989, and the state’s courts have on multiple occasions held that a broad state constitutional right to privacy applies to a woman’s pregnancy. Courts also struck down a law requiring parental notification in 2003, though voters in 2004 authorized a constitutional amendment that created a new, similar law.
Since then, the Legislature has grappled with abortion legislation almost every year, with limited results. The Legislature in 2015 passed a law that would impose a 24-hour waiting period before abortions, though that law almost immediately became snarled in a series of court decisions and appeals.
But the shifting judicial backdrop of the last few months, with three new conservative justices on the state’s highest court, has colored this year’s discussion of the parental consent bill. Some pro-choice and pro-life activists had suggested that the bill sets up a judicial challenge before a more conservative audience, though Grall, the sponsor, in multiple committee hearings, had flatly rejected the idea that the bill is meant to overturn judicial precedent.
On the House floor Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers pressed Grall on several concerns, including questions about the constitutionality of the legislation and how the judicial waiver process might or might not accommodate minors seeking to avail themselves of the procedure.
When Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar, asked Grall if she had spoken with any counselors or workers involved in the judicial waiver process — citing a Texas advocacy group that has heard from Florida minors seeking assistance — Grall admitted she had not. But she said resources for understanding the process are available online.
Democrats, including Reps. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach and Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, also pressed Grall on the constitutional right to privacy in state statute that had previously been cited in striking down past efforts to restrict abortion.
But Grall contended that that right to privacy had limits: “The minor does have a right to privacy but it is not absolute.”
As the debate wore on, lawmakers also turned to increasingly personal stories on the chamber floor. Rep. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville, the only Democrat to vote for the bill, recounted her own experience obtaining an abortion when she was a minor, citing it as a reason for her support.
Remaining Democrats, still a minority by a substantial margin in the House, had no chance of halting the bill without Republican members. Republicans also voted down an amendment brought by Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, that would have required the Office of the State Courts Administrator to develop and publicize information on how to obtain a waiver.
Before the bill passed, some Democrats — including Eskamani, who previously worked with Planned Parenthood — bemoaned the polarized rhetoric and political “boxes” that they suggested precluded compromise on the issue.
“Nobody likes abortion, but what we have again is another bill where no matter how long both sides debate, we all know what the outcome will be,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. “What have we done to prevent young women in the state from having unintended pregnancies?”
Pro-choice groups criticized the bill’s passage after lawmakers voted late Wednesday night.
“Leading health organizations and medical professionals oppose these laws for good reason. They make young people less safe and more likely to face a hard decision alone and afraid,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “It is important to recognize that parental consent laws in no way guarantee that a young person will talk to her parents or guardians before she has an abortion. All forced parental consent laws do is put at-risk youth at even greater risk.”
The bill heads now to the Florida Senate, where its companion in that chamber, SB 1774, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, passed its first committee stop earlier this month. The Senate measure also differs by adding to existing law rather than rewriting it, which some suggested might require minors to apply twice for judicial waivers — one each for the existing notification requirement and the proposed consent requirement. The Senate version is also missing the increased penalty for violating the state’s “born alive” law.
But that bill still has two more committee stops before it could be considered by the full Senate. The Judiciary committee, where it was supposed to be heard next, ceased meeting in early April and has no further scheduled meetings. Other committees have largely wound down operations as lawmakers set about agreeing on the state budget.
Rules could still be waived to bring the bill to the floor, but if the bill dies, it would join a handful of other proposals in this year’s legislative session that sought to restrict abortion but have failed to gain traction. Two sets of bills, HB 235/SB 792 and HB 1345/SB 558, would have limited the procedure to before a fetal heartbeat is detected or to 20 weeks, respectively.
The legislative session ends May 3.