‘It’s surreal’: Tampa Bay grapples with likely overturn of Roe v. Wade

A Supreme Court draft decision to reverse abortion protections sends shock waves through Tampa Bay.
Melissa Sharpsteen, 53, lifts her fists in solidarity with people attending a pro-abortion rally organized by Party for Socialism and Liberalism Tampa Bay along Central Avenue, downtown, in the wake of a leaked draft of a majority opinion from the United States Supreme Court detailing the intent to strike down Roe v Wade. “I’m pro-choice and I’m angry and I’m an attorney,” said Sharpsteen, Tuesday, May 3, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Published May 3, 2022|Updated May 4, 2022

News that the U.S. Supreme Court planned to overturn its precedent of nearly 50 years protecting a person’s right to abortion rippled across Florida and Tampa Bay on Tuesday, setting off various reactions that ranged from fear to elation to confusion.

For anti-abortion leaders, the leaked decision was the culminating victory in the long-fought battle to give states the right to criminalize the termination of pregnancies.

“It’s surreal,” said John Stemberger, the president and general counsel of the Christian conservative Florida Family Policy Council. “We’ve been working our entire lifetime for this moment and it’s hard to believe it’s actually happening.”

For abortion providers, advocates and supporters who have worked to protect a person’s right to choose, the draft decision came as a devastating blow to bodily autonomy, with massive medical and financial consequences.

A matter of health care

When Annie Jae Filkowski saw the news of the Supreme Court leak Monday night, while walking to get groceries after a long day of work, her stomach dropped, she said — a feeling unlike any she’d ever experienced in a half-dozen years working in reproductive rights.

Abortion protections have been increasingly under attack in recent years as state legislatures across the country have taken steps to place restrictions on who can terminate a pregnancy and under what circumstance. Just last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a 15-week abortion ban.

Still, for Filkowski, who is based in Orlando and serves as policy director at the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, the reversal of Roe v. Wade was the biggest threat yet.

As she read the headlines Monday night, Filkowski thought about people she’s encountered working in her job.

There was the homeless woman who didn’t know she was pregnant until she wound up in the hospital at 18 weeks. There was the 11-year-old who “didn’t know what sex was,” Filkowski said, until she was raped by a parent.

“Abortion is liberation in a situation like that,” she said, referencing the child. “It sends chills down my spine, thinking of her.”

As news spread Tuesday, activists and advocates like Filkowski mobilized, and protests were scheduled on both sides of the bay.

At the University of South Florida, Ben Braver and Ava DiGilio stood outside the library and handed out flyers for a protest taking place later Tuesday night.

Braver, a sophomore, joined USF’s Planned Parenthood chapter last year.

“Help save Roe v. Wade?” he asked as people carrying backpacks scurried past.

“Hell, yeah!” some students responded, while others asked questions about what the change in ruling would mean.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Tampa

Stay on top of what’s happening in Tampa

Subscribe to our free Tampa Times newsletter

You’ll get a roundup of the biggest Tampa community news twice a week.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Braver said he was passionate about protecting reproductive rights because he believes abortion is health care and health care is a human right.

Tampa native and USF student Ellie Levesque agreed.

“I need to be able to make decisions about my body and my future,” Levesque said. “Every aspect of our lives is inherently political. Everyone should care.”

Freedom and faith

The Rev. Len Plazewski, a pastor of Christ the King Church in Tampa, said the reversal of Roe is long overdue.

Plazewski, like many who are anti-abortion, said he believes life begins at conception. The argument that abortion is a health care procedure negates the well-being of the baby, he said.

“We miss the point if we get focused on the (abortion) safety issue,” Plazewski said. “What about the safety of the child who is killed?”

Plazewski said, instead, focus should be on providing people with resources if they have an unwanted pregnancy.

“The church has never said that you have to raise a child — I know many couples that would love to adopt children,” Plazewski said.

It’s a stance that’s been widely adopted across religious communities, which have been catalysts for the anti-abortion movement.

But the Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, said it’s not so simple.

“Our bodies were created by God, who gave us autonomy over those bodies,” Oliver said. “Often religious voices that are heard on this are the ones doing harm, so it’s important for people of faith who believe in reproductive justice to have their voices heard.”

The Rev. Clarence Williams, a pastor at Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, said that he falls somewhere in the middle.

Although he opposes abortion, Williams said he’s conflicted about the possible overhaul of Roe v. Wade.

Now 63, Williams remembers growing up in Polk County when Black people couldn’t give birth in area hospitals, and when segregated cemeteries were crowded with the bodies of young people who had attempted to terminate pregnancies on their own.

“I’m not a fan of trying to connect public policy to the biblical word,” Williams said. “I would hate for mothers to go out and seek untrained people to try to terminate the pregnancy … and do something that might hurt them.”

The road ahead

Although the leaked draft opinion indicates the reversal of Roe v. Wade is probable, the court still needs to make it official.

John Roberts, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, confirmed the authenticity of the document midday Tuesday, but asserted that it didn’t represent a final decision by the court.

Mathew Staver, a lawyer and the chairman of the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based law firm that champions religious freedom cases, praised the draft opinion.

“It sets forth a new day of the court being more consistent with the intent of the Constitution,” he said.

Patrick Leduc, a conservative Tampa attorney who has handled cases involving religious rights, celebrated the decision from afar.

”It’s thunderous,” said Leduc, who read the opinion Tuesday while deployed overseas with the U.S. Army Reserves.

He said the decision allows a democratic process to take place, and decisions to be made at the state level, as the Constitution intended.

“We can make those decision based on how we feel here in the state of Florida,” Leduc said. “We can do a better job in working it out than somebody in Washington, D.C.”

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson Law School, took a different tone.

“My community of legal scholars are on the progressive side, so this has been greeted with horror,” Torres-Spelliscy said. “It’s really unusual for the Supreme Court to take away a right that has been articulated by a previous Supreme Court.”

Times staff writers Hannah Critchfield, Divya Kumar, Jack Evans and Dan Sullivan contributed to this story.