Florida Legislature will consider abortion ‘heartbeat bill,’ Senate president says

When asked for comment about potential new abortion restrictions, Wilton Simpson sent a reporter the smiling sunglasses emoji.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, next to a text exchange with a Tampa Bay Times reporter from Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, next to a text exchange with a Tampa Bay Times reporter from Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 2, 2021|Updated Sept. 2, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. Texas’ six-week abortion ban, which essentially outlaws the procedure in that state for most women, will stay on the books.

The ban has “encouraged” Florida Republican lawmakers as they are expected take up legislation further restricting abortion in this state during the 2022 session, which starts in January.

On Thursday, Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, told WFLA-TV, CH. 8 that lawmakers are “already working on” a so-called “heartbeat bill.” In other states like Ohio and Texas, such bills have banned abortion as early as six weeks — before some women begin to suspect they are pregnant.

When asked to confirm his legislative intentions, Simpson sent a Times/Herald reporter the smiling sunglasses emoji.

A text exchange with Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.
A text exchange with Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. [ Kirby Wilson ]

Simpson later released a statement through his office in which he called the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Texas law to stay on the books “encouraging.”

“As an adoptive child myself, it’s important to me that we do everything we can to promote adoption and prevent abortion; therefore, I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at the Texas law and see if there is more we can do here in Florida,” Simpson said.

In a statement, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said he planned to keep pushing for abortion restrictions as he did last year when the House passed a ban on so-called “disability abortions.” But Sprowls stopped short of specifying that he would push for a heartbeat bill.

“In Florida, we agree that killing an innocent human being with a beating heart is wrong. It is why we have worked every session to strengthen protections for unborn babies, including those for unborn children with disabilities last session, and it is why I am confident that those who share this moral view in the Florida House will continue the fight,” Sprowls said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has long been supportive of a heartbeat measure.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, announced Wednesday he would file an abortion ban along the lines of the Texas law that the Supreme Court voted to 5-4 to uphold for now.

That Texas law is almost a blanket ban on abortions after six weeks. There is no carve out for victims of rape or incest, but there is a narrow exception for women undergoing a medical emergency.

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The Supreme Court on Thursday did not decide whether Texas’ law was constitutional. Instead, the court ruled that the abortion ban should stay on the books because of the law’s unique structure. The measure does not leave it to state officials to enforce the ban. Instead, it deputizes regular citizens, who are encouraged to report infractions of the law.

The lawsuit challenging the law failed because the parties it named are not charged with enforcing the measure, justices wrote in the brief majority opinion.

“It is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law against the applicants in a manner that might permit our intervention,” the opinion stated.

Five justices nominated by Republican presidents were on the prevailing side. Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, sided with the court’s three liberals.

Later this fall, the Supreme Court will decide whether a Mississippi law restricting abortion after 15 weeks is constitutional. That will be the first major test from this court of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that established the constitutional right to an abortion.

In July, DeSantis filed a brief in that case supporting the overturning of Roe. In that brief, DeSantis and ten other Republican governors argued the abortion issue should be left up to the states.

Related: Ron DeSantis asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade

The Florida Legislature takes up new abortion restrictions nearly every legislative session. But the Supreme Court’s emphatic rightward turn could further embolden an already conservative group of lawmakers to push precedent-setting abortion measures.

“The Supreme Court’s inaction encourages our state Legislature to consider these medically cruel, heinous laws,” said Stephanie Fraim, the President and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

Fraim noted that people who are pregnant do not currently have as much of a challenge accessing an abortion in Florida as they do in some other Republican-led states. Planned Parenthood alone has 13 health centers that offer the procedure, she said. Many other women’s health organizations and family planning doctors perform abortions as well.

Robyn Powell, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law who studies reproductive justice, said the Texas law will not stop people from getting abortions. Relatively wealthy women will still seek the procedure out of state, while the less fortunate will be forced to contemplate unsafe abortions, she contended.

John Stemberger, who leads the influential Christian conservative group Florida Family Action, said the court’s Texas decision could pave the way for an entirely new anti-abortion legislative strategy.

Since a 1989 Florida Supreme Court decision, abortion has been viewed as a fundamental legal right under Florida’s Constitution. That reality has been a thorn in the side to activists like Stemberger, who would like to see the procedure outlawed.

“Technically if they just reverse Roe, it won’t make a bit of difference in Florida,” Stemberger said.

But a Texas-style law could, in theory, allow Florida lawmakers to pass abortion restrictions that the state has no hand in officially enforcing, Stemberger said. Justices on Florida’s conservative-dominated state Supreme Court might look favorably on such a strategy.

Republicans will also be eyeing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Mississippi decision carefully. If the nation’s highest court allows an abortion ban after 15 weeks, Florida lawmakers could pass a bill like that in the hope of reversing state Supreme Court precedent, Stemberger said.

Republicans have pushed numerous abortion restrictions under DeSantis, who ran in 2018 on filling the state Supreme Court with conservative justices. He’s kept that promise.

Related: Florida's Supreme Court is more conservative than ever. Here's what they could do.

In 2020, the Legislature passed a bill requiring minors to get parental consent before obtaining an abortion. And earlier this year, the House passed a bill prohibiting a doctor from performing an abortion in cases where the doctor “knows, or should know” that the procedure was requested solely because the fetus was shown to have a disability.

That bill never got a hearing in the state Senate. It was initially scheduled to be heard in the Senate’s Children, Families, and Elder Affairs, which is chaired by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation. She never gave it a hearing.

In a statement Thursday, Book called the Texas law an “all-out assault on women’s rights.”

“So long as the bodily autonomy and self-determination of women are under attack, I vow to give those who seek to oppress reproductive rights the fight of their lives — for my daughter, for myself, for fellow survivors, and women everywhere,” Book said. “They cannot win.”