Florida abortion bill will affect access across the South, advocates say

The bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks cleared its first House committee on Wednesday.
Joey Cousin, a transgender student from Broward County and an opponent of SB 404, known as the "parental consent" bill, speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in 2020 in Tallahassee. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2020.
Joey Cousin, a transgender student from Broward County and an opponent of SB 404, known as the "parental consent" bill, speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in 2020 in Tallahassee. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2020. [ AILEEN PERILLA | AP ]
Published Jan. 19, 2022|Updated Jan. 19, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — The ban on abortion after 15 weeks proposed by Florida Republicans won’t just affect Florida if it becomes law.

For years, as nearby states have passed laws to limit abortion access, Southerners have made their way to the Sunshine State to take advantage of Florida’s relatively strong abortion protections. If a 15-week ban passes, access to abortion for people from out of state could be curtailed, advocates on both sides of the issue say.

“If you look at Texas, they haven’t had access to abortion care beyond six weeks for four months,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “You can imagine if access were eliminated in Florida, what it would look like in the South.”

The Republican-backed Florida bill cleared its first House committee Wednesday along party lines, a worrying sign for those who support abortion rights — and an initial victory for those who oppose abortion. The measure is currently scheduled to be heard in two additional House committees, and a similar measure will be heard in two Senate committees. If the bills clear those panels and then are approved by full votes of the House and Senate, Gov. Ron DeSantis will have the opportunity to sign the ban into law.

Every step of that process is dominated by Republicans who support abortion restrictions.

“This is not an abortion ban,” said state Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, in an emotional appeal to her colleagues. She said that people still have time to get abortions before the 15-week mark.

“To continue to listen to the semantics around this issue and act like science doesn’t matter when we are talking about our children, it’s one of the most frustrating experiences,” said Grall, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Texas’ law, which banned most abortions after six weeks, as well as a 2018 Mississippi law banning most procedures after 15 weeks, have led those seeking abortions in those states to Florida, where the procedure is allowed up until the fetus is viable, advocates say. Those seeking the procedure also come from Georgia and Alabama, where just a handful of counties have clinics.

Related: The abortion debate is heating up in Florida

“I don’t think Florida should be a destination” for people seeking abortions after 15 weeks, Grall said Wednesday following the committee vote.

The Florida legislation banning abortion after 15 weeks was modeled after the Mississippi bill, which is currently before the Supreme Court.

“It fixes the late-term abortion problem we have in Florida,” John Stemberger, a supporter of the bill and the president of the social conservative group the Florida Family Policy Council, said in an interview last week.

Goodhue, whose organization provides abortion services at 15 locations in Florida, said Planned Parenthood facilities in Jacksonville and Tallahassee have been especially busy recently. In the past year, the Tallahassee center started providing abortion three days per week — up from one day in the past. The Jacksonville location now provides the procedure five days per week. It used to be twice per week.

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Florida’s proposed measure does not include exceptions for abortions after 15 weeks in the cases of rape or incest. It does come with exceptions for unsafe pregnancies and for cases in which there is a “fatal fetal abnormality.”

About 75,000 abortions were performed in Florida in 2020, according to the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration. About 4,300 of those procedures were performed during the second trimester — between 13 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. Rape and incest were factors involved in a combined 23 second-trimester abortions that year. A fetal abnormality was a factor in 469 such abortions.

Grall’s measure also includes a number of provisions unrelated to abortion. For example, it would require the state Department of Health to create regional committees to review fetal and infant mortality. And it would require a state tobacco use education program to add a focus on pregnant women.

At Wednesday’s House committee meeting, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, proposed an amendment to strip the bill of its abortion provisions. The amendment failed along party lines.

Democrats argued the 15-week limit is unconstitutional under federal law. In 1973, Roe v. Wade outlawed state bans on abortion up to the third trimester. In December, the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that will determine the fate of Mississippi’s 15-week ban — and potentially the precedent set by Roe. v. Wade. A decision is due any day.

“We know that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. “There’s a case before the Supreme Court right now that could go either way. What are we doing right now having this discussion?”

The Florida Constitution will also play a pivotal role in deciding whether the 15-week ban ultimately becomes the law of the land. Since 1989, the Florida courts have held that the privacy clause in the state constitution allows for robust abortion protections in the state. But the current state Supreme Court is dominated by Republican appointees. If an abortion case is heard at the highest state court, justices could overturn those decades of precedent.

Dozens of Floridians attended Wednesday’s committee meeting. One speaker was ejected from the room by the committee’s Republican chair after bringing up the racist views of Margaret Sanger, the founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Abortion rights advocates were handed a small victory Wednesday when the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 to allow a 17-year-old girl to obtain an abortion without first getting parental consent. Under a 2020 law signed by DeSantis, minors have to get a parent’s permission before getting an abortion unless they obtain a judicial waiver.

The dissenting judge on that case, John Stargel, is the husband of Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who is sponsoring the 15-week abortion ban in the Senate this session.

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