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Vice President Kamala Harris invokes ‘freedom’ in Florida rally for reproductive rights

In the shadow of Florida’s Capitol, she jabbed at Gov. Ron DeSantis on the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, since overturned.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to a crowd Sunday at The Moon in Tallahassee on the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to a crowd Sunday at The Moon in Tallahassee on the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling. [ ALICIA DEVINE/USA TODAY NETWORK | AP ]
Published Jan. 22|Updated Jan. 22

TALLAHASSEE — Vice President Kamala Harris visited Florida on Sunday to hold a rally in support of reproductive rights, an issue she equated to “freedom,” a remark that doubled as an apparent jab to the “free state of Florida” rhetoric Gov. Ron DeSantis has embraced.

Harris said restrictions on abortion, such as Florida’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, were designed by “extremists.” Florida’s law does not offer exceptions for pregnancies that are the result of rape, incest or human trafficking but does in cases where the mother’s health is threatened or if there is a “fatal fetal abnormality.”

“Can we truly be free if so-called leaders claim to be on the, and I quote, ‘the vanguard of freedom’ while they dare to restrict the rights of American people and attack the very foundations of freedom?” Harris asked a crowd of about 1,200 supporters at The Moon, a concert venue in the shadow of Florida’s Capitol.

Harris chose to make these remarks on DeSantis’ home turf to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that was overturned six months ago by the U.S. Supreme Court, eliminating federal abortion protections.

The visit comes as DeSantis has spent the past few months directly attacking the Biden administration as he prepares for an expected 2024 bid for the Republican nomination for president.

Harris’ 18-minute speech did not mention DeSantis by name, but her quips directly attacked DeSantis’ “freedom” rhetoric as she equated the fight to protect abortion access to Americans’ efforts to abolish slavery and secure a woman’s right to vote.

“America is a promise. A promise we must all make real in every state, in every community, in every state house, in every state office and yes, in every election,” Harris said. “Let us not be tired and discouraged because we are on the right side of history.”

Biden administration’s next steps

During her remarks, Harris said the Biden administration will be exploring how to further protect access to abortion pills by ensuring doctors can prescribe the medication across the country.

President Joe Biden signed a memorandum Sunday that directed members of his administration to make recommendations that support patients, providers and pharmacies that want to legally access, prescribe or provide mifepristone, the first pill used in a two-drug medication abortion regimen.

Harris then called on Congress to pass federal protections on abortion.

“For every American, Congress must pass a bill that protects freedom and liberty,” she said.

Harris’ remarks were met by a roar of applause from hundreds of people, including Floridians from different parts of the state and elected local, state and congressional Democrats. The event was held concurrently with marches and rallies across the country to commemorate the Roe v. Wade anniversary.

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Margaret Bryant, a 71-year-old from Sarasota, drove to Tallahassee with two friends, Ellen Seidensticker, 73, and Kate Lannamann, 69. They had planned to observe the Roe v. Wade anniversary locally, but when they learned Harris was coming to Tallahassee, they decided to make the nearly five-hour drive north.

Lynne Kupfer of Tallahassee said she brought her 10-year-old daughter, Elise, so she can be part of what she believes to be a politically important moment.

“I think for some of the younger kids, they don’t have the frame of reference to see the significance of protecting Roe,” Kupfer said. She said she wants to make sure Elise is aware of the issue at a young age.

These are some of the people that Harris and elected officials are hoping to mobilize to advocate for protection of abortion access.

Florida’s next steps

Florida, which has been controlled by Republicans for more than two decades, has found itself an unexpected refuge for abortion procedures in the Southeast in recent years.

Even after legislators last spring passed a ban to limit abortions to 15 weeks of gestation, the law was not as restrictive as those of neighboring states, prompting what Planned Parenthood officials said was a quadrupling of services for its clinics in Florida.

“In the course of just two generations, we’ve seen rights won and lost. It’s up to us,” state Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book said at the rally while carrying her 5-year-old daughter, Kennedy. “Florida is the third-largest state in the country. We are the last outpost for abortion care in the South, and no one, my friends, is going to save us but ourselves.”

But as DeSantis eyes a potential run for the Republican nomination for president in 2024, advocates fear he could soon push to further limit abortion access in the state.

At one point during the rally, the crowd cheered: “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Ron DeSantis has got to go.”

Political considerations

DeSantis has dodged questions on what he plans to do next, which has opened him up to attacks from all sides on an issue that has shown to be difficult political terrain for Republicans, including DeSantis, a favorite culture warrior among conservatives.

The majority of the public doesn’t want stricter abortion laws, but DeSantis’ conservative supporters are demanding it.

Some conservatives are pushing the Republican governor for a Texas-style abortion ban on all stages of pregnancy unless the mother has a life-threatening medical emergency. Among them is Andrew Shirvell, founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, who believes Florida is “way behind” other red states in terms of policy.

“Gov. DeSantis has strong-armed the legislative leadership on all sorts of other issues. He certainly could turn around tomorrow and hold hostage any one of their priorities and say we’re not doing this until you advance the pro-life bill that I want to get behind. But he hasn’t been able to do that, apparently,” Shirvell said in an interview last week.

According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates abortion providers, the number of abortions appeared to be down in Florida last year. There were 68,217 abortions in the state as of Dec. 2, 2022, down from the 79,817 in 2021 and 74,868 in 2020.

Some who attended Sunday’s event say they believe DeSantis’ stance on abortion is politically calculated and are unsure what he plans to do next.

“I think he is being political. I think he is trying to stay on both sides, and not commit, because it is very clear to everyone where the people are,” said Bryant, from Sarasota.

Last week, state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, had a similar hunch.

“My general feeling is that Ron DeSantis doesn’t care about this issue. He only cares about it in terms of how it impacts his presidency,” Skidmore said in an interview.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.