TALLAHASSEE — Voters don’t want to hear elected officials talk about abortion.
So says Democratic pollster Molly Murphy. As the calendar inches closer to the 2022 elections, she said in an interview, the electorate has more pressing concerns, such as inflation, the coronavirus and local schools.
“Even just the idea that a politician is focusing on abortion legislation not only puts them on the wrong side of the issue, but it puts them on the wrong side of getting what voters are going through right now,” Murphy said.
Florida Republicans, however, are instigating a potential abortion showdown this legislative session. A bill that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy is sailing through the GOP-controlled Legislature. The bill has already cleared two House committees and on Wednesday, it cleared its first Senate committee. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Gov. Ron DeSantis have all said they support the measure.
If passed, it would be the most restrictive abortion ban passed in the state in more than half a century. Current state law allows a person to terminate their pregnancy until the third trimester — about 24 weeks.
Republicans say politics are beside the point, and that they’re simply trying to save as many lives as possible with their legislation. For them, now is a golden opportunity.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with an election year,” said Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, who helped craft the legislation.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which conservative justices control by a 6-3 margin, is currently weighing the future of the Mississippi law that inspired the Florida bills. If the Supreme Court allows that state’s 15-week ban to stand, it could mean the end of the precedent set by the landmark Roe v. Wade case, and pave the way for a similar ban in Florida.
Mary Ziegler, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law who specializes in the legal history of reproduction, said a 15-week ban is the first step toward a total abortion ban.
“It’s no secret that the pro-life movement frames this as an incremental step on the road to a ban from fertilization,” Ziegler said at a Tuesday press conference with Senate Democrats.
If the 15-week bill passes, Florida abortion opponents would then have to overcome more than three decades of legal precedent from state courts. They have long held that the right to an abortion is protected by the privacy clause in the Florida Constitution.
Florida’s legislature is not going as far as some states when it comes to restricting abortion. Texas has passed — and the Supreme Court has refused to strike down — a law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Most women don’t know they’re pregnant at that point.
Democratic opponents of the bill say Republicans are trying to have it both ways by passing a restrictive new law that they hope will remain palatable to voters.
“(The bill) includes some very extreme positions on abortion, but they are pretending and putting on a show as if 15 weeks is reasonable,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, an opponent of the bill. “They’re choosing that tactic because they’re hopeful that it will not wake up Democrats compared to what we see in Texas.”
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The version of the 15-week bill making its way through the House does not include exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Exemptions would be given only in cases where the mother’s life is in jeopardy — or in cases involving a “fatal fetal abnormality.”
The Republican sponsors of the measure, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, have said the exemptions are not necessary.
“There’s no specific exemption because there’s not a ban on obtaining an abortion until 15 weeks,” Grall said at a House committee hearing in January. “So until 15 weeks, anybody who has been affected by rape, incest or human trafficking would be able to access abortion under this bill.”
On Wednesday, a Senate committee voted down an amendment offered by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to add exceptions in cases of rape, incest or human trafficking to the bill.
The lack of exceptions currently in the bill is striking, Ziegler said, because those exceptions enjoy wide bipartisan support and have been supported by various Republican presidents.
Still, Florida Republicans will likely feel more comfortable campaigning on a 15-week ban than a Texas-style six-week ban because lawmakers can point to the time the woman has to choose, said Kathleen Dolan, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“It’s harder to accuse them, perhaps, of anti-women misogyny,” Dolan said.
Mallory Carroll, a spokesperson for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said abortion restrictions are popular among Florida voters. She noted that a 2019 poll of 500 voters touted by her organization found that 76 percent of state voters support a law “prohibiting late abortions.”
Republicans have argued a pregnancy termination after 15 weeks constitutes such an abortion. At a January committee hearing, Rep. David Borrero, R-Sweetwater, said fetuses have beating hearts and the ability to suck their thumb at 15 weeks after conception.
In 2020, about 4,300 of the state’s approximately 75,000 abortions came during the second trimester — around when the bill banning the procedure after 15 weeks would apply. The state saw 23 second-trimester abortions in cases of rape or incest that year.
Even if a 15-week bill is unpalatable to some voters, some experts say it’s unlikely to play a pivotal role in 2022.
Abortion is rarely the central issue for American voters, Dolan said. Instead, voters tend to seek out candidates of their party.
Shana Gadarian, the political science chairperson at Syracuse University, said she doesn’t expect the restriction will affect Florida Republicans’ support this election cycle.
The parties have stark differences in their stance, so if a voter is in favor of abortion restrictions and cares deeply about the issue, there is one clear party for them to turn to, she said. Although it is possible for a party to go too far and polarize their voters, the 15-week ban is not out of concert with the Republican platform, Gadarian said.
But there may be some risk to passing an abortion ban in that it might motivate more Democrats, the professor said.
“You’re trying to get your voters excited about what you’re doing for an issue they care about,” Gadarian said, “and not also motivate the opposition to turn out in large numbers to vote against you.”
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