After emotional testimony, bill banning abortion at 6 weeks of pregnancy moves forward

The legislation allows exceptions for rape or incest, but only up until 15 weeks and with documentation.
Patient escort volunteer Peggy MacLeod, 76, of St. Petersburg and another volunteer use umbrellas to shield patients as they make their way into the Bread and Roses Woman's Health Center in Clearwater on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023.
Patient escort volunteer Peggy MacLeod, 76, of St. Petersburg and another volunteer use umbrellas to shield patients as they make their way into the Bread and Roses Woman's Health Center in Clearwater on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published March 16|Updated March 16

A Florida House committee on Thursday voted to advance a bill that would restrict abortion to the first six weeks of pregnancy in nearly all cases, before some women know they’re pregnant — despite an ongoing lawsuit challenging a 15-week abortion cutoff that legislators passed last year.

Unlike the current 15-week ban, the six-week legislation (HB-7) does have exceptions for rape and incest, but only up until 15 weeks of gestation, and only if there is “documentation proving” the rape or incest, such as a restraining order, police report, medical record or court order.

After hearing sometimes tearful testimony from dozens of speakers, most of whom opposed the measure, the committee voted 13-5 along party lines in favor of the bill. Some speakers said they felt legislators weren’t listening to their concerns, with one commenter describing the hearing as a “circus.”

Taylor Aguilera from Lakeland cried as she left the committee room after she testified about finding out she was pregnant at 10 weeks. Aguilera said she became pregnant with what began as consensual sex, but then her sexual partner removed a condom without her knowledge.

She said didn’t report what happened to police “because I wanted to get as far away from that situation as possible,” she said. She said she chose to keep her pregnancy, but she worried under the proposed bill that someone with a story like hers wouldn’t have the option to make the choice for themselves.

Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, the sponsor of the House legislation, said the bill was inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. Persons-Mulicka said though she has a “call to duty to protect our unborn babies,” the legislation is a result of trying to build consensus on a policy promoting life.

Andrew Shirvell, the founder of Florida Voice for the Unborn, told the committee that the six-week cutoff was still too lenient.

“To do anything less than full protection is cowardly and unacceptable in this new Dobbs era,” Shirvell said.

The bill would allow for abortions after six weeks in cases where the pregnancy could cause the loss of life or serious medical damage. In many of those cases, two physicians would be required to certify that the conditions of the pregnancy warrant an abortion. Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, put forward an amendment to require only one physician to certify the medical necessity, but the amendment failed.

Related: Bill banning abortion after 6 weeks filed in Florida Legislature

Tant said there is a lack of physicians in rural areas like those she represents.

One obstetrician, Alexandra Monaco, told the committee that it’s difficult for her to meet with patients before eight weeks of pregnancy, and that typically she only meets with them at 10 to 13 weeks in their pregnancy.

Monaco said there are nuances in pregnancy and abortion care that physicians like her train for, and that while she doesn’t expect lawmakers to understand all those nuances, she does “expect you to understand that health care providers do know better.”

Trenece Robertson, now a 23-year-old Florida A&M University student, said she had an abortion in 2019 at a Tallahassee Planned Parenthood when she was about six weeks pregnant.

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She said she doesn’t regret her abortion and is glad to have been able to continue her education after the pregnancy. Had a six-week ban been in place at the time, she said, she would likely now be caring for a 3-year-old.

“I felt like I wasn’t even in a position to take care of myself mentally,” Robertson said. “I would have been a complete wreck and incapable of taking care of a child.”

Robertson said the proposed six-week ban is “evil,” saying it isn’t enough time for people to find out if they’re pregnant. When Robertson first noticed she missed her period, she thought it was from the stress of her job and classes.

The legislation also prohibits the use of state funds to help pay for a person to travel out of state for an abortion, unless it’s required by federal law or a “medical necessity.”

Similar legislation filed in the Senate also includes $25 million for the Florida Pregnancy Care Network Inc., which oversees Florida’s pregnancy support services program. That program was created to “encourage women to carry their pregnancies to term, and increase awareness of non-abortion counseling options, such as parenting or adoption,” according to the House staff analysis.

All amendments to the bill offered up by Democrats were voted down during Thursday’s committee hearing. With a Republican supermajority and backing from Gov. Ron DeSantis for the bill, Democrats acknowledged there’s little they can do to stop it, but urged Republicans to revisit some of the suggested changes, like allowing people to give a sworn statement attesting to their rape instead of having to get other medical or police documents.

If passed, implementation of the six-week ban is still contingent on the outcome of an ongoing Florida Supreme Court case that questions whether the state Constitution’s privacy clause protects the right to an abortion. Previous rulings have said it does, but the DeSantis administration is seeking to overturn that precedent.

The six-week legislation is written to take effect if the court sides with the DeSantis administration in the case over Florida’s current 15-week abortion ban.

Correction: This story has been updated to note that Taylor Aguilera chose not to terminate her pregnancy.

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