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Tampa Bay March for Life rallies ‘defense’ against abortion-rights vote

The regional rally called on voters to reject a proposed state amendment supporting abortion rights.
 
Protesters march down Central Avenue in St. Petersburg for the fourth annual Tampa Bay March for Life on Jan. 20, 2024.
Protesters march down Central Avenue in St. Petersburg for the fourth annual Tampa Bay March for Life on Jan. 20, 2024. [ COLLEEN WRIGHT | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 21

ST. PETERSBURG — On a Saturday that began with a wind chill advisory, protesters against abortion donned shirts that read: “It’s a beautiful day to save lives.”

The brisk weather didn’t stop at least 250 people from gathering at Pioneer Park near downtown St. Petersburg’s waterfront to participate in the fourth annual Tampa Bay March for Life. The local rally is an offshoot of the main event in Washington, D.C., that draws thousands on every anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

That decision was overturned in 2022, a resounding victory for anti-abortion groups. But in the wake of that decision, other groups have fought to defend abortion rights at the state level. They’ve won in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia.

Florida is up next. An amendment protecting abortion rights collected almost a million signatures and could be on the 2024 ballot with the Florida Supreme Court’s approval. The state court is also weighing Florida’s 15-week abortion ban that, if upheld, would pave the way for a six-week abortion ban to take effect 30 days later.

At Pioneer Park, Katy Harvey collected ballot signatures for an amendment that would recognize “the God-given right to life of the preborn individual.” She said she collected 15 signatures on Saturday and a total of 500 have been collected overall — not enough to meet the 2024 ballot deadline by Feb. 1.

“It was one of those days where I would have much better luck at the Republican clubs,” Harvey said. “We would love for more churches to get involved. Churches have remained silent. We could’ve ended this years ago.”

March for Life organizer Scott Mahurin of St. Petersburg-based Florida Preborn Rescue admitted an amendment in their favor wouldn’t be on the 2024 ballot.

“It’s a little late for the pro-life side to start something, so our strategy is defense,” he said. “Our job is to inform people we are a pro-life, conservative state. This should be a slam dunk for us.”

This year, the Tampa Bay march faced a counterprotest. About 20 people with nonpartisan Indivisible Pro-Choice Pinellas held a counterprotest steps away on the corner of Pioneer Park and followed the anti-abortion marchers to City Hall. The group’s communications director, Beth Weinstein, weaved in between marchers and interrupted speeches. She had a few altercations with anti-abortion marchers.

“When we talk about marching for life, we’re marching for everyone’s lives,” said Weinstein, who said her group is familiar with some of the anti-abortion marchers, since Indivisible Pro-Choice Pinellas offers clinic defense at abortion clinics where anti-abortion protesters pray. She said that since the 15-week ban was enacted, the maternal mortality rate has climbed, which has been anticipated by experts but is hard to track.

“Women’s lives are just as important as the unborn,” she said. “The unborn are easy to advocate for. They don’t need food, education, health care and housing. Women who are here need access to abortion health care to stay alive.”

Religious rhetoric of love turned more political once at City Hall. Bishop Gregory Parkes, the leader of 450,000 Catholics in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, spoke about how anti-abortion progress is “now at great risk.”

Diocese of St. Petersburg Bishop Gregory Parkes address the March for Life crowd in front of St. Petersburg City Hall on Jan. 20, 2024.
Diocese of St. Petersburg Bishop Gregory Parkes address the March for Life crowd in front of St. Petersburg City Hall on Jan. 20, 2024. [ COLLEEN WRIGHT | Times ]

“An extreme ballot initiative proposing to amend our state’s constitution to legalize full-term abortion is of grave concern,” he said. (The Florida amendment would allow abortions to remain legal until the fetus is viable, as determined by the patient’s health care provider.)

The event featured the Rev. Walter Moss from Ohio, who wrote a book titled, “Why I Am a Black Pro-Life Pastor.” He gave the crowd a warning.

“f you don’t work together, if you don’t organize,” he said. “We’ve lost every battle of amendments. ... Florida, you are on the threshing floor.”

“The next time we have this rally in Florida, we can rejoice,” Moss ended his speech. “Come on, Florida, show them we can win this.”

Abortion-rights rallies took place throughout Tampa Bay over the weekend, from Gulfport to Citrus County. A Bigger Than Roe rally is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday in Tampa, and Progress Florida will hold a Roe v. Wade Visibility event at noon Monday at 277 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.