The U.S. Supreme Court avoided significantly eroding abortion rights Tuesday, declining to weigh in on part of an Indiana law that had been struck down by a lower court and would have prohibited abortions because tests revealed an abnormality. But the nation's highest court won't be able to dodge the issue forever, as state after southern state moves to all but ban abortion. While Florida remains out of the legal fray, abortion rights remain at risk in the Legislature and should be an election issue in 2020.
Earlier this month, Alabama passed a law that bans abortion in the state, even in cases of rape and incest. The law, which makes an exception only for the health of the mother, could send an abortion provider to prison for up to 99 years. Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have passed "fetal heartbeat" laws, banning abortion once a heartbeat is detected, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before a woman might even know she's pregnant. And a new Missouri law will ban abortion at eight weeks.
The Florida Legislature did not change the state's abortion laws this session. Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, introduced a fetal heartbeat bill that did not get a hearing. The House passed legislation that would have required a teen to obtain parental consent before getting an abortion, but it did not come to a vote in the full Senate.
Yet the fight to preserve abortion rights is far from over in Florida. Hill, whose fetal heartbeat legislation had 20 co-sponsors, told a group this month that he filed the bill after God spoke to him. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who co-sponsored the parental consent bill, told NPR's "The Florida Roundup" that "as policymakers we now have a lot to look at.'' You can bet they will try again next year, inspired in part by the appointment of three conservatives to the Florida Supreme Court by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In setting a 24-week limit, Florida is more in step with several moderate states such as Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island rather than the Deep South. Polls consistently show that Americans reject outright bans on abortion. Even among those who oppose abortion rights, one third believe that first trimester abortions should generally be legal, 71 percent believe that abortion should be legal when a woman's life is in danger and 57 percent agree in cases of rape or incest. It's clear that these recent extreme measures are out of step with American opinion and U.S. jurisprudence.
Rather than ever-tighter restrictions, the better way to lower the abortion rate is by improved sex education and better access to affordable contraception. In fact, reasonable people who believe that abortion should be legal, safe and rare need to know that in Florida, it is not rare at all. There is one abortion for just over every three births, a clear failure of health policy to prevent unwanted pregnancies. There were 70,083 abortions in Florida last year, almost 12,000 fewer than a decade ago. Last year, the vast majority (94 percent) were in the first trimester.
Too often, people act as if abortion is a matter for the courts alone, from Roe vs. Wade to the current day. But the courts intervene only when states overstep by invading a woman's constitutional right to privacy or her right to equal protection and place undue burdens on her right to make her own health decisions. It's up to Florida voters to remind state legislators that they support abortion rights and politicians who attempt to erode those rights will be held accountable.