Legislation to make killing fetuses a crime in Florida awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature

The bill’s modeled after a federal law used against John Andrew Welden, who tricked Remee Lee into taking an abortion drug.
The bill’s modeled after a federal law used against John Andrew Welden, who tricked Remee Lee into taking an abortion drug.
Published Apr. 24, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Harming a fetus while committing a crime, no matter how small the embryo, would carry stiffer penalties under a proposed law now awaiting Florida Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

The legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate is modeled after a federal law used to bring charges against John Andrew Welden, the Tampa man who tricked ex-girlfriend Remee Jo Lee into taking an abortion drug that caused her to miscarry a 7-week-old embryo.

Florida would join 23 states that allow offenders to be charged separately for causing the death of a fetus at any stage of development. Under current Florida law, charges can only be brought in the death of fetuses that could have survived outside of the womb and only in cases of vehicular homicide, DUI manslaughter and killing by injury to the mother.

The governor will sign off on HB 59 once it lands on his desk, a spokesman said Wednesday.

"Gov. Scott is pro-life and believes that the lives of unborn children must be protected," John Tupps said. "He looks forward to signing this legislation."

Lee cried after legislators passed the legislation.

"If one baby is saved then that just means everything," Lee said.

The sponsors, Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, went to great lengths not to characterize their proposal as anti-abortion. The House approved similar legislation last year, but it stalled in the Senate after pro-choice groups argued it was intended to create "personhood" rights for fetuses and could lead to new abortion restrictions.

This time, the pro-choice groups stayed mostly on the sidelines. The horrific example of Welden's crime against Lee was a huge reason why. Ahern and Stargel insisted the bill was intended to protect pregnant women and their unborn babies from being injured or killed during the course of a criminal act and cited the case at every turn.

"She wanted her baby, and he chose to take it from her," Stargel said during debate on the bill Wednesday. "He gave her a pill and forced her to have that abortion against her choice."

Democrats voted overwhelmingly against the measure in both chambers, citing concern about unintended consequences when the criminal act was involuntary or the fetus was so small even the mother didn't know she was pregnant.

"I just don't want us to be out of balance," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "I know how important it is to protect women from acts of domestic violence, but as we navigate this issue we just have to make sure that we factor everything that we know about that we can deal with."

The Senate vote Wednesday was 25-14, with no Republicans against. In the 74-42 House vote earlier this month, only one Democrat, Rep. Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores, voted in favor.

Welden was sentenced to 13 years and eight months in federal prison in a deal that allowed him to plead guilty to product tampering and mail fraud in exchange for other changes being dropped.

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He had faced life in prison on charges of murder under the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act. The "Florida Unborn Victims of Violence Act" would take effect Oct. 1.

A separate measure that sponsors say is intended to further limit abortions could be prepped for Scott's signature as soon as Friday. The House has already approved HB 1047 along party lines and the Senate is scheduled to debate the companion, SB 918, today.

If this bill becomes law, Florida would join 21 states that restrict abortion after a doctor determines viability, usually around 23 weeks of gestation. Current law limits abortions in the third trimester, a difference of about two weeks.

The proposal requires doctors to perform a medical examination and, if the fetus is found to be viable, an abortion is allowed in the third trimester only if the woman's life is at risk or she faces serious injury and a second doctor concurs.

There would no longer be an exception for a woman's emotional health. According to Department of Health statistics, no third-trimester abortions were performed in Florida in 2013.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.