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Will Florida soon restrict abortion?

On Roe v. Wade anniversary, abortion supporters worry about parental consent and what may follow.

TALLAHASSEE — The important thing was to maintain decorum: No clapping, no outbursts, cool and calm. But a few of the students, in their BANS OFF MY BODY T-shirts, showed their nerves by tapping feet.

Lauren Brenzel, a Planned Parenthood organizer, knelt down on Wednesday in the crowded Florida Senate committee room, where lawmakers would soon file in. Don’t be scared, she reassured.

“Their whole job is to listen to you speak,” she said.

Around them was a sea of pink: pink hair, pink T-shirts, pink stickers. Her group had asked for enforced decorum at this hearing, the final stop for a controversial bill bound for the full Senate. It would require minors who want an abortion to get notarized parental consent or a judge’s approval to bypass it. At a previous committee, Brenzel said, a medical student who’d spoken against the bill got called a murderer. The emotion, and the stakes, ran high.

It also happened to be the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, marking 47 years of legal abortions and attempts to curtail them. Last year, Florida had been the only conservative-led state in the South not to tighten abortion access. Its leaders did not plan to repeat the omission.

The few empty seats in room 110 soon filled with men and women in navy SUPPORT PARENTAL RIGHTS stickers. Speaker cards floated down the rows as people signed up to testify — even if some wearing pink shared a sense that they were already too late.

***

Wearing a silver cross, reading from a screen that glinted in her glasses, Sen. Kelli Stargel rattled off her bill’s broad sketches: Parents have a right to raise their children, she said. Minors aren’t psychologically mature enough to decide about abortion alone. If the girl is being abused or fears a parent’s anger, she can get a free attorney and petition for a waiver. But most Florida families are functional, Stargel said. Kids just misunderstand how their parents might react.

Last year, Sen. Kelli Stargel’s parental consent for abortion bill failed to pass through the more moderate Senate, but this year, Republicans have united behind it. She said it’s about ensuring a family conversation around a serious decision. (AP Photo/Aileen Perilla) [AILEEN PERILLA | AP]

Stargel, a Republican from Lakeland, had introduced her bill in previous years, but conservatives had fragmented strategies on abortion. Some wanted all-out bans, others incremental restrictions, or they fell somewhere in between.

By this winter, they were united. Stargel’s bill came anointed by Republican leaders in both chambers. Some predict it will be the first major bill to land on the governor’s desk.

Florida already requires minors to notify parents of plans for an abortion and bring notarized forms to the doctor. But that fails to guarantee a conversation, Stargel explained. She and colleagues, like House counterpart Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, point out that teenagers need parents to OK an aspirin at the nurse’s office. Why would a medical procedure with serious implications be any different?

Their opponents were ready Wednesday to spell out how the bill could hurt young people, including forcing a child, against her will, to birth another child.

The pro-choice crowd feared, too, that the bill was something of a “Trojan horse” — a seemingly small rule change that could unleash devastating effects.

Stargel and her allies said that was not their intent, but nearly everyone acknowledged that the bill’s passage would likely draw a court challenge. The state Supreme Court has held since 1989 that the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of individual privacy applies to abortion. That’s meant the downfall of many attempts to restrict abortion — including past stabs at parental consent.

The protection has been so strong that abortion rights groups call it “Florida’s Roe v. Wade.” But with the court’s new, heavily conservative bench, it could undo the precedent that has, for decades, made Florida a moderate outlier on abortion in the South.

As senators discussed constitutionality, an organizer asked students, “Y’all doing okay?” A woman with a Christian Family Coalition sticker told a compatriot, “I think we’re going to get this done today!”

Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican from Fort Myers, held up a thick stack of speaker cards. Less than 40 minutes remained, with time cut short by a medical incident. Only a few from each side would get to speak, she said.

Under her breath, one Planned Parenthood volunteer cursed.

Opponents of Stargel’s bill mandating parental consent for abortion filled a committee room on Jan. 22, but only a handful on either side of the issue got a chance to speak. (AP Photo/Aileen Perilla) [AILEEN PERILLA | AP]

The opposition sent up Madeline Brezin from the Center for Reproductive Rights, who said, “I cannot imagine anything more destructive to a family, or to an individual, as a human being, than being forced to carry a pregnancy to term against their will.”

Supporters sent up Anthony Verdugo of the Christian Family Coalition Florida, who said, “The message that we’re sending here is that parents matter.”

A researcher from the University of Colorado Boulder said she’s found that most teenagers already talk with their parents. When they fear abuse or abandonment, she said, they have well-founded reasons. She said the judicial option can be terrifying and traumatic.

A man speaking for Florida Voice for the Unborn said, “We need to save as many unborn lives as possible while we are living under this evil regime called Roe v. Wade.”

Sen. Stargel closed with an abridged version of her own story, which she had begun to tell more often this year.

She’d gotten pregnant at 17. When Stargel swallowed her fear and told her mother, the reply stunned her. Her mother recommended what she thought was easiest — an abortion.

Stargel ultimately chose to have her daughter, now the eldest of five, and married the father, now her husband of 35 years. But that decision came after a long talk. Parents need to be involved, Stargel said.

By the time the votes were tallied for her certain victory, many in the crowd were already rustling up coats and streaming out the door.

***

Despair clouded the foyer as the pro-choice activists huddled, arms folded over shirts that said TOGETHER WE FIGHT FOR ALL.

“This is a space to let out tears,” said one organizer. Whatever cheer had accompanied them earlier now calcified into worry.

“We are standing in opposition to callousness,” Brenzel said, anger edging her voice. “We are going to speak.”

They already had a rally planned for noon but needed catharsis sooner. Back through Capitol security they went, a stream of pink. They found a corner in the first-floor lobby and set up a camera. Women took turns stepping toward it, saying why they’d come:

Because parental notification is already burdensome. Because they wanted to make a point to their daughters. Because “this bill is turning children into villains and parents into owners.” Because a boyfriend once said, “Get rid of it or I’ll beat it out of you.”

It was hard to hear the stories over dinging elevators and a crush of cowboys who’d just strolled in, scuffed boots and all.

A little later, at the official rally, women traded Luna bars, swiped on lip balm and made a semicircle in the Capitol rotunda.

This time, news cameras captured the boos for Senate Bill 404, the cheers for Roe v. Wade, the drawing of a wire hanger that said NEVER AGAIN.

Kelly Flynn cleared her throat. She’d taken the day off from the abortion clinic she owns in Jacksonville. She’s seen parental notification up close, she said at the mic. The day the law went into effect, a young woman came in who couldn’t tell her parents. Flynn went with the girl to a county judge for a bypass, where they waited hours and were made to testify in front of strangers, only to be denied. With a pro bono attorney, they appealed at the state Supreme Court and won.

Social worker Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro stood up soon after.

She talked about her own experience, making her way through the waiver process — she’d had to prove her own father’s abuse, she told a reporter.

“I ask you guys to continue to fight, to continue to — oh my gosh.” She put a hand to her face. “Today was hard, guys, today was so hard.”

***

In the Capitol halls, Verdugo made his rounds in a red tie. With the bill ready for the floor in both chambers, the Christian Family Coalition Florida founder was feeling confident. Some Democrats had already promised their support.

He and other pro-life leaders say the bill is all about parental rights. He also believes the state Supreme Court got it wrong 30 years ago and looks forward to a new reckoning.

“We’re willing to wait,” he said.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a vocal anti-abortion lawmaker, has been quoted elsewhere saying the court challenge is a purposeful move. To the Tampa Bay Times, he downplayed those comments but said the bill helps Floridians inch closer to seeing abortion as a “barbaric” act.

“I have critics who say I’ve sold out because I’m not pushing for the whole thing to be eliminated,” Baxley said. “That’s who I’d like for us to be, but I’ll also do what I can to save one.”

Like in Florida, the nation’s Supreme Court also has swung to a conservative majority. With that apparent green light, anti-abortion states have aggressively pursued restrictive laws, blanketing the country in bans now tied up in lawsuits.

Many experts see a scale back on abortion rights not as an if but a when.

More than 200 Republicans in Congress have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to dismantle Roe’s precedent when it rules on a major abortion case this summer.

If the court does chip away at the protection for abortion, it will likely declare the issue up to the states, said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has written books on abortion law.

As the U.S. grapples with such a major shift, the future here is unpredictable. Florida remains a purple state, slightly right of center.

Its voters don’t poll on abortion with the same fervor as those in states like Alabama.

“If the Supreme Court does overrule Roe, it wouldn't be the end of the story in Florida,” Ziegler said. “It would be more of the beginning.”

In Democratic chambers, Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando tried to rally the risk-averse. A former Planned Parenthood staffer, she is an outspoken outlier even in her own party. What she’s seen this winter from the opposition, she said, is a desire to ignore the realities of Floridians.

“What a blessing to have a parent you can talk to and who helps you make decisions,” she said. “I haven’t had that for a very long time.”

As for the court challenge, she said, “This is part of the playbook.”

“If you care about abortion access, then you should be very nervous right now,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, told a reporter before speaking out against the parental consent bill at a Roe v. Wade rally. (AP Photo/Aileen Perilla) [AILEEN PERILLA | AP]

Analyses by pro-choice groups have revealed flaws in the judicial waiver system in Florida, including clerks who don’t appear to understand the process. But with the bill chugging along, Eskamani said the focus must shift to this year’s elections. She pointed out her window, toward the voters.

“If they only knew what was happening in here, they would be severely pissed,” she said.

***

Dusk crept closer on the Capitol steps, where the holdouts hunched against the cold.

“Hey everyone, if you can line up this way with the big phallic symbol behind you,” said activist Lakey Love, waving up at the legislative tower aglow with the day’s last light. “If you’re holding a sign, come to the front.”

Much of the pink crowd had already started home, loading students into Broward-bound coaches, folding up speeches and driving south.

Two dozen women rallied for this last event, a frigid anniversary vigil, thin coats buttoned tight. They held flickering, battery-lit tea candles in their mittens and settled in for speeches that by now felt well-worn.

A single news camera rolled. A few lawmakers leaving their offices stopped by.

Laura Hernández from Planned Parenthood reminded the crowd why they were here, to honor the women who died before Roe, who’d been desperate to self-induce or seek an illegal abortion.

“This bill would do that again,” she said. “Today, in 2020.”

Even the rallying cries carried the air of a wake.

Linda Deshauteurs, who’d come from Jacksonville, said, “What do we do when it’s obvious decisions are being made no matter what we say?”

Organize, speak out, elect women, someone said. Get mad.

The women pressed closer in the dark. Across the street, lights flickered on behind the letters spelling out SUPREME COURT. The cameraman had disappeared. The women made a circle. They grew silent, remembering, and listened to a ballad about a back-alley abortion and a friend who died. They piled their candles into Love’s hands, gathered up the signs that said REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM NOW and WOMAN UP, shoved wind-bitten hands into pockets and said, “Bye,” “See you tomorrow.”

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill.

Read the Tampa Bay Times’ recent series on abortion:

Those on Florida’s front lines in the abortion battle know change is coming

A Florida abortion clinic braces for a Southern surge

A crisis pregnancy center in Florida wants to redefine choice

Young doctors find a calling on abortion’s front lines

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