Abortion bill in Legislature has rare bipartisan support

Published April 9, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers are poised to pass an abortion-related bill this year that would require doctors who provide abortions to offer emergency medical care in the unlikely event a baby is born alive.

But unlike heated debates of years past, the proposal has drawn rare bipartisan support and even the muted acceptance of abortion rights groups.

The bill, HB 1129, is focused on how an infant born alive is treated, said House sponsor Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park. It requires health practitioners provide emergency medical services or face criminal penalties.

Planned Parenthood withdrew its initial opposition after a more controversial provision was removed, but not before its lobbyist was caught flat-footed at a House committee meeting last month.

Under questioning, lobbyist Alisa LaPolt Snow offered vague, awkward answers when asked what should happen if a baby is born as the result of a botched abortion.

"We believe that any decision that's made should be left up to the woman, her family, and the physician," Snow first said.

When pressed whether the baby would be a patient in need of medical care, Snow said, "That's a very good question. I really don't know how to answer that."

Snow's answers became a rallying cry for antiabortion activists, which drew headlines such as "Planned Parenthood champions killing babies born alive" and were used for fundraising purposes.

Planned Parenthood later clarified Snow's comments, saying she "did not fully communicate our position."

"We want to make it very clear that if this very rare situation were to ever happen, we would provide high quality care to both the mother and the infant," said Judith Selzer, vice president of Public Policy and Communications for the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

The bill is headed to the House floor, while the Senate companion is scheduled to be considered today.

This year, Florida is one of 42 states considering at least 300 pieces of abortion-related legislation, according to Planned Parenthood.

But the discussion in Tallahassee is not quite as acrimonious as years past, where rancorous debate bogged down the Legislature.

Pigman's bill is one of four proposed this session, the lowest number in the past few years.

One of the other proposals, SB 876, would make the death of an "unborn child" a separate crime from any offense committed against the mother. While not dealing directly with abortion, critics say it can be used to elevate the legal status of a fertilized egg to that of an adult. The bill has passed two House and two Senate committees.

The other proposals deal more directly with abortion but do not appear likely to pass this year.

One would require doctors to sign an affidavit stating an abortion is not motivated by sex or race selection (HB 845), while the other would ban abortions in most circumstances (HB 395).

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Conservative House members generally support the proposals, but Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said that abortion-related measures are not among his top priorities.

"Nobody whose doors I knocked on said abortion was an issue that they wanted us to focus on. They wanted us to focus on economic issues," Gaetz said. "I don't think they've become less pro-life, but I think they've become more pro-jobs."

That thinking has played out in lawmaking.

Florida lawmakers passed five abortion-related bills in 2011, including a measure that requires women be offered an opportunity to view and hear a description of ultrasound images before receiving an abortion. In 2012, no bills passed.

And last November, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited using state tax dollars to pay for abortions.

"It's a big wake-up call to this legislative body," said Selzer, with Planned Parenthood. "There's been a constant attack on women's health care and this is not what they were elected to do."

Still, antiabortion legislators and groups still aim to chip away at legalized abortion. But efforts are "more targeted," said Anthony Verdugo, founder and executive director of the Christian Family Coalition.

The bill sponsored by Pigman, an emergency medicine physician, would provide protections in the cases where a failed abortion could result in a live birth — either a late-term abortion (which can only be performed if two physicians say the mother's life is in danger), or if a mother was further along in her pregnancy than estimated.

No third trimester abortions were performed in Florida in 2012 (Florida defines the third trimester as after 24 weeks of pregnancy). So far, none have been performed in 2013, according to the state Agency for Health Care Administration. More than 90 percent of the recorded 9,228 abortions performed statewide so far this year occurred during the first 12 weeks, according to the state.