TALLAHASSEE — Supercharged by a super-majority in the House and Senate, Florida legislative leaders broke their silence Wednesday and confirmed they are prepared to discuss further abortion restrictions in Florida in the next year.
But how far they will go is the big question, and interviews with the presiding officers indicate they already appear to be taking different approaches.
Incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald in an interview that she wants to see the 15-week ban approved last year by lawmakers reduced to 12 weeks with the addition of an exclusion for rape and incest, which is currently not allowed.
“I went on record on the abortion bill in support of an exclusion for rape and incest, and I’d like to see that,” said Passidomo, a Naples Republican who will be sworn in this month as the third woman to be Florida’s Senate president. “And I think in order to accomplish that, I think we would have to reduce the weeks. I don’t have a problem going to 12 weeks.”
Under the law passed earlier this year, all abortions are banned 15 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period. Women can still obtain an abortion after that cutoff if their health is threatened or if their baby has a “fatal fetal abnormality,” but there is no exception for victims of rape or incest.
Incoming House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said the House is likely to support additional restrictions as well but he was unwilling to “put a number on it.”
“I don’t think it’s time for me to put a number on it until we’ve organized,” Renner said, noting that there are 30 new legislators joining the House after the election, including a record 85-member Republican majority. He was not prepared to say if they will want to see an outright ban on all abortions or further limits on the existing 15-week ban.
“I personally am pro life and would like to see us move more in that direction,” he said. “But I want to hear from my colleagues in the House and my colleagues in the Senate before we take any steps in that direction.”
Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for Gov. Ron DeSantis, confirmed the possibility of additional abortion legislation on Friday, and wrote: “We look forward to working with the Legislature to further advance protections for innocent life.”
‘Heartbeat’ bill is sought by activists
Anti-abortion activists want legislators to tighten the limits on the procedure by passing a so-called “heartbeat” bill banning abortions after six weeks, before many pregnancies are detected, said John Stemberger, an Orlando attorney and director of the Florida Family Policy Council, an anti-abortion advocacy group.
But he said he is uncertain whether that is possible even with what may be the most conservative Legislature in a decade.
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“I know the governor wants to do something that is more protective, and his office is weighing what to do,” he said. “The question is how much political capital he will use to make this a priority.”
Stemberger predicted that “the most likely thing to happen is a heartbeat bill” because that would put Florida in line with states to the north that either have banned all abortions or banned them after six weeks of gestation.
“But of course leadership is key,” he said. “I think Renner would support a heartbeat bill, as would the governor, but the question is: Will the Senate president?”
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, DeSantis issued a statement praising the decision on states’ jurisdiction over abortion regulations and promised that Florida “will work to expand pro-life protections.” He provided no specifics.
But DeSantis has also not repeated a promise he made when campaigning in 2018 that he would sign a so-called “heartbeat” bill.
On Friday, Griffin would only say that DeSantis is “proud of the 15-week pro-life protections that he signed into law in April, as a baby in gestation beyond 15 weeks is fully formed, can feel pain, and has a heartbeat.”
Poll shows Floridians support right to abortions
According to a May survey of over 500 Floridians by Florida Atlantic University, most Florida residents want abortion to remain legal in most cases. That poll showed 67% of residents wanting abortion legal in either all or most cases, including 85% of Democrats, 52% of Republicans and 63% of independents.
“These moves are not reflective of what their constituents want — across the board in Florida — and that’s across party lines,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “It doesn’t matter the number of weeks, they’re just opposed to politicians interfering in their pregnancy decisions.”
She also said that for Passidomo, a lawyer with three grown daughters, it could be a difficult issue.
“Does she wants this to be her legacy — that she’s taking away women’s rights when it’s certainly not the priority of Floridians and her constituents?” Goodhue asked.
Goodhue said she agreed with Renner on one thing: “You can’t put a number on people’s rights and people’s pregnancies. Every pregnancy is different.”
It is unclear whether Florida voters would punish or reward Republicans for passing more restrictions, which is considered popular with just a segment of the conservative base.
In the face of broad public opposition to abortion bans, Republican lawmakers kept their distance and avoided answering specifics on the issue during the run-up to the mid-term elections.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, removed any mention of the issue from his web site, and DeSantis and legislative leaders would not answer whether they would support a “heartbeat” bill.
The governor and his GOP allies repeatedly refused to detail what their plans are on the issue for the upcoming legislative session, even as Democrats argued that their silence was disingenuous.
During the lone debate between DeSantis and his Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the candidates were asked how many weeks of pregnancy abortion should be allowed. Neither answered it.
“I just think we’re better when everybody counts,” DeSantis said, avoiding a direct answer. He added that he is “proud” of the 15-week ban.
Crist, who tried to make the governor’s race a referendum on the issue, responded that he would “make sure we keep a woman’s right to choose available to the women of the state of Florida. And I want to make sure that we don’t have a governor in the future who wouldn’t even allow exceptions for rape or incest.”
15-week ban is under legal challenge
Unlike in at least 18 other states, Florida lawmakers did not pass so-called “trigger” laws to ban abortion outright the moment Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Achieving the 15-week abortion ban was a tumultuous journey for lawmakers last spring, as lawmakers from both parties gave tearful speeches in debate, protesters disrupted multiple hearings and lawmakers divided mostly along party lines in the final vote to approve it.
The measure was signed into law by DeSantis and soon challenged in court, as plaintiffs argued it violates Florida’s constitutional right to privacy.
A circuit court judge ruled the law violated the 1989 court ruling that Florida’s right to privacy, which is enshrined in the state Constitution, and blocked the law. An hour later, the DeSantis administration appealed the ruling and it was automatically nullified.
The challenge now is pending before the Florida Supreme Court, and DeSantis has said that his goal is to get the court to overturn the past decisions that established the constitutional right to privacy as a right to abortion.
Note: This story was updated on Friday, Nov. 11, when the governor’s office responded to a request for comment.