State legislators divided on extending wrongful death suits to unborn children

'The most dangerous 60 days in the State of Florida is the legislative session," Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hinson of Gainesville says
Posted at 10:33 PM, Feb 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-21 22:34:29-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Tallahassee lawmakers have found themselves embroiled in a contentious debate over proposed changes to Florida's Wrongful Death Act, centering on whether to extend its protections to unborn children. The legislation making it happen is now set for a floor vote in the Florida House in the coming days.

It comes after passions flared in the legislation's final House committee, on Wednesday. Supporters of the bill argued fervently that what they considered unborn children deserve recognition as human persons, while opponents raised concerns about potential restrictions on abortion rights.

The proposed changes would establish a pathway for parents to seek legal recourse for the wrongful death of what the legislation considers an "unborn child" in cases like car accidents or slip-and-falls. Notably, the bill explicitly exempts mothers from liability. However, it opens the door for legal action against health care providers who violate Florida's abortion laws.

Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers, a sponsor of the bill, emphasized the importance of holding accountable those who perform illegal abortions.

"If a provider violates our statutes and performs an illegal abortion — they can be held criminally liable for a felony," she said. "In that case, should they not be potentially civilly liable to the parent?"

The Republican lawmaker helped carry last year's six-week abortion ban, which is still waiting on a Florida Supreme Court decision to take effect. Persons-Mulicka vowed her new legislation had nothing to do with limiting legal access, despite outcry from abortion advocates.

"I think that’s a red herring,” she said. "That's definitely fear-mongering. It takes away from the larger issue that we’re talking about — should this child have value in terms of value to the parent."

Critics, however, view the legislation as overly broad and potentially intimidating to health care providers offering abortion services. Both Florida Democrats and the ACLU have criticized the bill in statements, expressing concerns about its potential chilling effect on abortion providers.

"The intent is to intimidate health care providers and make them fearful of providing abortion care by threatening them with lawsuits,” said Kara Gross with the ACLU of Florida.

Ahead of Wednesday's committee vote, lawmakers from both parties voiced reservations and recommendations for refining the bill. Democrats called for its defeat.

"The most dangerous 60 days in the State of Florida is the legislative session," said Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville. "Creating fear in the hearts and minds of the people of Florida— I’m so tired of it.

Rep. Paula Stark, R-Kissimmee, voted in favor of the bill but said her continued support would be contingent on a rewrite to rein in what she saw as sweeping language.

"I will have to say — if this goes to the floor in its current form, I would have to be down," Stark said.

Other Republicans, like Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradentom, disagreed. He considered the legislation "narrow" and vital.

“This is a wonderful bill,” he said. "It’s not about fear at all— it’s about justice."

As the full House prepares for discussion and debate on the policy change in the session's remaining weeks, the Senate moves ahead with its version. The upper chamber's bill still needs to clear a final committee before it gets access to the floor.