Abortion restrictions headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, congratulates Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, after Stargel’s bill to restrict funding for abortion clinics in Florida passed the Senate on Wednesday. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times] 
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, congratulates Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, after Stargel’s bill to restrict funding for abortion clinics in Florida passed the Senate on Wednesday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times] 
Published March 10, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Abortion clinics won't be able to receive state money for preventive care, and they'll need privileges at a nearby hospital under a new set of restrictions that passed the Legislature on Wednesday.

State law already bans using taxpayer dollars to fund abortions. But about $200,000 in Medicaid funds is spent annually on testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screenings and preventive care at abortion clinics.

Anti-abortion advocates in the Legislature assert that is tantamount to supporting abortions. Instead, they want that money to be spent in other kinds of clinics, like crisis pregnancy centers and federally qualified health centers.

"The idea that those taxpayer dollars would go to an organization that performs abortions is simply intolerable," Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.

The legislation passed the Senate 25-15 and the House 76-40 on Wednesday. Gov. Rick Scott has not indicated if he'll sign it.

Beyond the Medicaid issue, advocates also maintain that tougher rules are necessary to bring abortion clinics in line with other health care facilities, like ambulatory care centers.

"This bill says we're going to treat abortion clinics the same way that we treat other similarly situated clinics," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the bill's sponsor.

Opponents say tough new rules could lead to some clinics closing down because of requirements that doctors must have admitting privileges or transfer agreements with a nearby hospital.

And the ban on state funding, they say, would hurt women who seek preventive care, specifically at six Planned Parenthood clinics.

"If the true aim were life, this measure would not only allow but boost the funding for these clinics that provide prenatal care to mothers and babies and expand affordable health care for Floridians," Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said.

The measure will likely face court challenges.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Whole Woman's Health vs. Hellerstedt, a case alleging that a Texas law with tough regulations similar to those in this bill are unconstitutional. On Friday, the court instituted an injunction to stop a law requiring physicians to have admitting privileges in Louisiana.

In Florida, a mandatory 24-hour waiting period signed into law last summer is in the middle of its own court challenge. Opponents allege that law, as well as the bill passed Wednesday, violate strict privacy provisions in the state Constitution that have been interpreted to ban any undue burdens that restrict access to abortions.

The bill was passed in the wake of controversy over videos released online appearing to show Planned Parenthood doctors in other states talking about a fetal remains donation program.

It would make tougher restrictions against improperly disposing of fetal remains. And it would change the definition of trimesters in state laws to validate state regulators' arguments in a series of complaints filed last year against Planned Parenthood.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, an abortion rights supporter who voted with Democrats against the new regulations, said the Legislature should stop "nibbling around the edges" of the abortion debate. The issue reminds her of antismoking campaigns, she said.

"Just because you took everybody's ash trays away doesn't mean they quit smoking," Detert said. "Just because we make it more difficult for people to get an abortion or more expensive doesn't mean that those people who want an abortion aren't going to try to get one. They've done it historically for hundreds of years."

Other senators, including Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, the first woman elected president of the Florida Senate, called the legislation an "outrage." She said the Legislature continues to move abortion bills each year because it "obviously is not a women's group."

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.