Why did DeSantis sign Florida abortion bill late at night?

Whether it was politics or logistics, abortion is shaping up to be a tricky issue for Republicans nationally.
Gov. Ron DeSantis' office sent out a news release shortly after 11 p.m. Thursday with this photo, showing legislative leaders and a few dozen people cheering as he signed a bill that would ban most abortions after six weeks.
Gov. Ron DeSantis' office sent out a news release shortly after 11 p.m. Thursday with this photo, showing legislative leaders and a few dozen people cheering as he signed a bill that would ban most abortions after six weeks. [ Gov. Ron DeSantis' Office ]
Published April 15, 2023|Updated April 21, 2023

Last year, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a 15-week abortion ban, he declared to a cheering crowd and news cameras that it was “the most significant protections for life enacted … in a generation.”

On Thursday, when he signed a bill to ban most abortions after six weeks, the only notice came from an emailed news release after 11 p.m. DeSantis signed the bill in a private ceremony in his office at 10:45 p.m., according to an official schedule, surrounded by a few dozen supporters.

The quiet signing of such a landmark piece of legislation — especially by a governor who is widely expected to run for president in 2024 — raised questions about whether DeSantis was avoiding drawing too much attention to an issue that may carry political risk going forward.

A six-week ban would be much more impactful to abortion access than last year’s law because far more abortions happen earlier in a pregnancy than at 15 weeks. If it’s allowed to take effect by the state Supreme Court, the ban would dramatically curb abortions not just in Florida but in the entire Southeastern United States.

Observers wondered if the timing was indicative of the thorny abortion politics that Republicans around the country are now trying to navigate. Voters in Wisconsin elected a liberal state Supreme Court justice in what was largely viewed as a race dominated by abortion.

Nationally, some Republicans have questioned whether cutting abortion access is a winning issue for the party in 2024. Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott came out against Florida’s six-week ban in a March television interview, saying that voters don’t support it. But about a month later, Scott tweeted that he is “100% pro life” and would sign the six-week bill if he were still governor.

“(DeSantis) knows it’s going to hurt him in the general, but he’s got to win the primary,” said Alex Patton, a Republican pollster in Gainesville. The American public has broadly accepted some restrictions, he said, but outright bans are a “hot stove.” Many women don’t know they’re pregnant before six weeks.

“He’s got the ‘street cred’ on the right, and now he can wait to see how it plays out and how to position himself against other states,” Patton said.

The governor’s office did not respond to an email Friday asking about the rationale behind the timing of the bill-signing.

As DeSantis gets closer to a potential 2024 campaign launch, he has had a packed political schedule: Hours before he signed the bill in Tallahassee, DeSantis was delivering a speech near Cincinnati. By late Friday morning, he was speaking to students in a dramatically lit arena at Liberty University in Virginia and was slated to visit New Hampshire later in the day.

Supporters of the abortion bill said the timing shows how committed DeSantis is to the cause.

“Gov. DeSantis … knew he was going to sign the heartbeat bill, so he didn’t delay,” said Kelsey Pritchard, the director of state public affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “Rather than sitting on it for fanfare reasons, he swiftly signed it into law as quickly as he could.”

Three representatives from the Susan B. Anthony anti-abortion group were at the bill signing, Pritchard noted. Also present was state Rep. Jennifer Canady, R-Lakeland, a sponsor of the House bill who is married to Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Canady.

John Stemberger, the president and general counsel of the anti-abortion Florida Family Policy Council, said the governor may have limited publicity around the event to avoid a public confrontation at the Florida Capitol, where protesters have held rowdy demonstrations in recent days.

“You have to do it in the way that you’re not going to get mobbed by the opposition,” Stemberger said.

In Florida, a historically purple state that’s recently turned deep red, not all Republican lawmakers supported the bill. Many of those who voted against it represent the state’s swingier areas in South Florida.

Republican state Rep. Chip LaMarca, whose district is part of blue Broward County, was one of those members.

“I decided that the pro-life vote that I took last year did exactly what I had hoped it would. The 15-week bill strongly promotes life, while allowing for safe and legal, but exceptionally rare, abortions,” he said in a text message Friday. “It is also where the vast majority of my district is on this important issue.”

Although DeSantis for years has said he supports banning abortions starting at around six weeks, he has not made the issue a significant part of his recent stump speeches. After Roe v. Wade was struck down, DeSantis was mum for months on what policies would follow in Florida.

DeSantis’ introduction at Liberty University, a private Christian school, included a mention of the recent bill-signing, prompting loud cheers from the crowd Friday. But DeSantis himself didn’t mention it during his speech there, only saying: “We have elevated the importance of family and promoted a culture of life.”

Democrats at both the state and national levels vowed not to let him draw the attention away from the six-week ban.

“Floridians and Americans overwhelmingly oppose abortion bans, and tonight Gov. DeSantis further proved that point by signing Florida’s most extreme abortion ban into law near midnight and behind closed doors,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, in a statement shortly after the bill-signing was announced. “His sick and sad attempt to avoid public backlash will not work.”

While unusual for such a major piece of legislation, Thursday night’s private bill-signing is part of a recent trend of DeSantis signing bills without his typical news conferences before supportive crowds.

Within the last month, he has also quietly signed measures that allow Floridians to carry concealed guns without a permit, as well as another that will make it harder to sue insurance companies. Both bills lacked uniform support among Republicans.

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

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Sen. Rick Scott’s more recent comments on the abortion bill.

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