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DeSantis stays quiet on abortion’s future in Florida as Republicans strategize

Two anti-abortion advocates predict the passage of a heartbeat bill in the state.
Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn't said what abortion legislation he wants Florida to pass. However, he issued a statement praising the court decision and promised that Florida “will work to expand pro-life protections,” without offering specifics.
Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn't said what abortion legislation he wants Florida to pass. However, he issued a statement praising the court decision and promised that Florida “will work to expand pro-life protections,” without offering specifics. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 6

Florida is accustomed to Gov. Ron DeSantis volunteering his opinions on the political issues of the day, often telegraphing his plans for future state policy decisions during news conferences.

So now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, what abortion legislation does DeSantis want Florida to pass?

He hasn’t said.

While many red states, including some of Florida’s neighbors in the South, rush to tamp down on abortion, the Sunshine State is still waiting to see what happens next.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, DeSantis issued a statement praising the decision and promised that Florida “will work to expand pro-life protections,” without offering specifics.

Related: DeSantis on Roe: 'The prayers of millions have been answered'

The explanation for DeSantis’ ambiguity is likely two-fold.

Florida is in the midst of trying to resolve the thorny legal issue of whether its state Constitution’s privacy protections include abortion rights — as years of state Supreme Court precedent has held. To move forward with further restrictions, DeSantis will need the increasingly conservative court to reverse that precedent, and his office has said it will ask the court to do so as it fights challenges to the new 15-week abortion ban.

“We very much look forward to pursuing additional legislative protections for the unborn,” DeSantis spokesperson Bryan Griffin said in an emailed statement. “Our future legislative action necessarily depends on the resolution of these legal issues.”

But several political observers said that, in this quiet period, DeSantis and other state Republicans are making political calculations, as well.

Protesters march during an abortion rights rally on June 25 at the corner of E Fowler Avenue and N 50th Street in Temple Terrace.
Protesters march during an abortion rights rally on June 25 at the corner of E Fowler Avenue and N 50th Street in Temple Terrace. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

DeSantis is widely considered to be eyeing a potential run for president in 2024, which would require a Republican primary on the national stage.

On one hand, that’s going to push him toward not wanting to look “soft on abortion,” said Michael Binder, faculty director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida.

But going so far as to completely outlaw abortion before the midterms, which would require a special legislative session, could create a backlash to his gubernatorial reelection effort.

“It would add some uncertainty,” he said. “If you’re winning, why would you do that?”

While abortion polling can be squishy, Floridians generally support access to legal abortions at a rate higher than residents of any other Southern state, multiple polls have found.

Related: What do Americans think about abortion policy? It can be complicated

“Florida is not Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina,” Binder said. “Our immigration from the North and the Midwest makes us different.”

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Political party affiliation is the “most distinct differentiator” when it comes to how people feel about abortion, he added, outweighing correlations with gender or race. That could be important as the number of registered Republicans in the state outnumber Democrats for the first time.

State Rep. Webster Barnaby, R-Deltona, who was a co-sponsor of Florida’s 15-week bill, said he intends to remain a “leading voice” on future abortion legislation. He said he will work with House leadership and the governor to determine what that will be. It’s a decision with implications for thousands of people in Florida and other nearby states who have come to Florida seeking more permissive laws.

“The nature of our business is politics, and so we have to put everything into the equation,” Barnaby said. “Despite some of the polling, our polling shows that the majority of Floridians support the sanctity of life.”

When asked if that meant lawmakers were conducting polling on abortion, he said: “We are doing our due diligence.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis is widely considered to be eyeing a potential run for president in 2024, which would require a Republican primary on the national stage. That could play into any decision about what abortion legislation he might support.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is widely considered to be eyeing a potential run for president in 2024, which would require a Republican primary on the national stage. That could play into any decision about what abortion legislation he might support. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

John Stemberger, president and general counsel of the Christian conservative Florida Family Policy Council, predicted a Florida bill to ban the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, saying that idea has more “oxygen” with the governor and Legislature than outlawing abortion entirely.

That would still deal a massive blow to abortion access in the state. That cutoff can be earlier than some women know they’re pregnant.

Stemberger also mentioned DeSantis’ potential presidential ambitions as a factor, noting that being anti-abortion is “very important in Iowa and other places.”

“I think he’s one of the most principled politicians I’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t mean he’s ignoring polling data,” he said.

Lynda Bell, the president of Florida Right to Life, said DeSantis has been “wise” to stay quiet while the 15-week ban is still under legal challenge.

“To use an old George Bush term, there might be some ‘strategery’ to see what the next bill should be,” she said.

Bell also said a “heartbeat bill,” often synonymous with a six-week abortion ban, seems “very plausible,” and predicted it would pass in the next regular session, which is scheduled to begin in March.

DeSantis said during his 2018 campaign that he’d sign such a measure as governor after his primary opponent, Adam Putnam, made the same promise.

While he has supported anti-abortion policies, including signing the 15-week abortion ban and a law requiring parental consent for minors to get abortions, the issue has not been a centerpiece of DeSantis’ time as governor. The current environment, with Roe struck down, could test how far he is willing to go.

As a U.S. representative, DeSantis co-sponsored a bill to defund Planned Parenthood unless it promised to stop performing abortions. He was also part of a congressional committee that investigated the group’s use of taxpayer money after controversial videos surfaced purporting to show how the group profited from selling fetal tissue to medical researchers. The Freedom Caucus, of which DeSantis was a member, in 2015 refused to support government spending bills unless Planned Parenthood was defunded, which almost caused a government shutdown.

But the most important part of DeSantis’ legacy on abortion is most likely the way he’s reshaped the state Supreme Court.

After years of the court striking down Republican priorities, a rush of retirements has meant that three of the seven justices are now DeSantis appointees, with a fourth coming soon. His picks of conservative members, vetted by the Federalist Society, have dramatically shifted the balance of the court, effectively removing the final obstacle to Republican domination of state policy.

Related: Here’s why Republicans are so excited about Florida’s new Supreme Court

Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat and former lawmaker involved with several midterm campaigns, said if this Florida Supreme Court allows the state’s 15-week abortion ban to stand, he will be saddened by how far the pendulum has swung.

His late father, Leander Shaw, authored the majority opinion in the 1989 ruling that Florida’s constitutional right to privacy included abortion, which the court reaffirmed in 2003.

“A woman’s right to choose is under attack and that’s a fight we thought we’d already won,” Shaw said.

DeSantis recently appeared on a Christian podcast, during which he was asked about the 15-week law. He said twice that he’s confident the Florida Supreme Court will rule in his administration’s favor.

“We think we’ll ultimately win that, so we’re going to fight very hard,” he said. “It will certainly save lives, but I also think it’s important as just an expression of our values that every one of these kids count.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.

• • •

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