Fla. Legislature likely to curtail abortion rights

With economic issues dominating Florida's political rhetoric, little was heard about abortion during the November election, but the results may profoundly affect abortion rights in the state.

At least 18 measures that would restrict abortions have been filed in the Legislature and sponsors are optimistic about their chances of passing because of the Republican sweep in Florida.

Not only did the GOP strengthen its control of both legislative chambers, many first-term Republicans are more conservative than the lawmakers they replaced regardless of party.

"I don't know if it's the tea party — just good candidates that have the same beliefs as a pro-life person," said Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican who's sponsoring one of the abortion bills. "I suspect that most of them didn't run on that issue, but that's what their belief is."

Another lawmaker sponsoring legislation to limit abortion, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said the election of Republican Gov. Rick Scott is another key factor.

"Having a governor that's going to sign the bills is something that adds impetus to moving forward," Flores said.

The Florida legislation includes bills (HB 1127, SB 1744) virtually identical to a measure that Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist, vetoed after it passed in the closing hours of last year's legislative session. It would have required pregnant women to view and listen to a description of a live ultrasound picture of their fetuses before getting an abortion.

This year's legislation, as did the 2010 bill, would allow women to opt out of viewing the ultrasound if they sign forms indicating their decision is not based on any undue third-party influence. They'd still have to listen to the description, though, unless they could provide documentation that they're victims of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking.

Crist vetoed the measure shortly after he quit the GOP to campaign unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as an independent. Crist said he personally opposed abortion but that his views "should not result in laws that unwisely expand the role of government and coerce people to obtain medical tests or procedures that are not medically necessary."

One of this year's sponsors, Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, said most abortion clinics already use ultrasound tests as a diagnostic tool so the legislation would add little or nothing to the cost of an abortion.

"It provides women with the knowledge, the truth, the facts of the procedure that they are facing," Porter said. "Knowledge is power and too much knowledge is never a bad thing."

Like most legislative candidates, Scott also said little about his anti-abortion views when he ran for governor last year as a political outsider. Instead, the former hospital chain CEO focused on his promise to create jobs by cutting business taxes as well as state spending and regulations.

"I've been pro-life all my life and I'm going to be a pro-life governor," Scott recently said when asked about the deluge of anti-abortion legislation. "I let people know my position. I've not surprised people."

Many of the bills are identical or similar to measures introduced without success in the past, but they stand a better chance of passing this year, acknowledged Stephanie Kunkel, executive director of Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

Kunkel has been lobbying against the bills, arguing that if lawmakers really wanted to reduce abortions they'd expand access to birth control and provide teens with comprehensive sex education.

"Thankfully this Legislature has 60 days and we're hoping that time will be on our side," Kunkel said.

She's most worried about legislation (HB 321, SB 1948) that would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of gestation unless necessary to prevent the mother from dying or suffering an "irreversible physical impairment."

Current Florida law is based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings that permit abortions up to the point of a fetus' viability, which is approximately 24 weeks after conception. States can restrict abortions after that stage.

The Florida legislation, titled the "Pain-capable Unborn Child Protection Act," is modeled on a law passed in Nebraska last year that's based on the disputed contention a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks.

Flores is the Senate sponsor of another far-reaching measure, a proposed amendment (SJR 1538, HJR 1179) that would put existing prohibitions against the public funding of abortions in the Florida Constitution. The amendment also would carve out an exception for abortion to Florida's strong privacy right.

That proposal, though, goes too far even for some anti-abortion Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett.

"This does not belong in the constitution," said the Bradenton lawmaker at a committee hearing. "Why are we walking down — walking again — on the rights of other people?"

Wise has filed a bill (SB 1414) that responds to a provision in President Barack Obama's health care overhaul

that will create exchanges for obtaining health care insurance.

The Senate bill and a House companion (HB 97) would prohibit abortion coverage by any insurance policy or health maintenance contract purchased with state or federal funds through an exchange unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or necessary to save the mother's life. There is no exception for the mother's health.

The bill wouldn't prevent women from using their own money to buy policy riders for abortion, but opponents say insurers so far have not made that option available.

The Florida Constitution and state law currently give parents a right to be notified before minors can get abortions, but allow underage girls to get a court waiver of that requirement.

Legislation (HB 1247, SB 1770) has been filed to give judges up to three business days, which could total five days if a weekend intervenes, instead of the current 48 hours to make a decision. It also would require minors to file such cases in the judicial circuit in which they live. Current law lets them go to neighboring or nearby circuits.

Opponents say the extra time could delay some abortions to the second trimester of a pregnancy while most clinics limit their practice to first trimester procedures and that restricting waivers to local circuits would increase the risk of a girl running into someone who knows her at the courthouse.

Other legislation (HB 1397, SB 1748) would impose a variety of new requirements on clinics and doctors including stricter criminal penalties for violations of existing regulations. It would add requirements for abortion doctors to get three hours of ethics training every year and that clinics licensed after Oct. 1 be owned and operated only by physicians.

Another provision says clinic advertisements would have to include statements saying they are prohibited from performing abortions in the third trimester or after viability.

The legislation also would bar anyone from distributing information in any way, including word of mouth, about poisons, drugs or "means whatever" for causing or procuring a miscarriage. Violators could get up to a year in jail.

"That's textbook government restraint on free speech, and having that provision in this bill almost certainly guarantees a legal challenge," said American Civil Liberties Union activist Ron Bilboa.

While the abortion bills are generating plenty of debate as they wind their way through the legislative process, Wise said he doesn't expect many minds to be changed.

"They only way you change it would be in an election," Wise said. "That's what happened."
 


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