Reproductive rights activists, groups vow to take fight over recently filed abortion bill to streets, elections

'We support babies, born and unborn,' one bill sponsor says

James Call

On the opening day of the Florida Legislature’s 2022 session, abortion opponents sparked a battle that reproductive rights activists said will continue until the November election. 

Encouraged by new restrictions enacted in Mississippi and Texas, and emboldened by the questions justices asked during a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on the Mississippi law, two GOP women lawmakers have filed a 15-week abortion ban for colleagues to consider during the 60-day session. 

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Currently, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks in the state, and later in the case of an emergency. 

“This (falls) under the 'be careful what you ask for' part of American politics,” Florida State University communications professor Davis C. Houck said. The political rhetoric and movements expert says the proposal could ignite the usual political firestorm.  

The legislation (SB 146, HB 5), carried by state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and state Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, comes with exceptions in cases of medical harm for the mother or fatal fetal abnormalities but not for rape or incest. It also proposes to spend $260,000 annually on a fetal and infant mortality review committee.

Sen. Kelly Stargel gives her closing statements after debate over her bill SB 404, requiring parental consent for abortion for minors, at the Florida Capitol Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. The bill passed the Senate 23-17 along party lines.

The House bill is scheduled for a hearing in the chamber's Professions & Public Health Subcommittee on Wednesday, Jan. 19 at 1 p.m.

Already, the stars are aligning in its favor. Gov. Ron DeSantis, soon after the bill was released, said a 15-week ban “makes sense.” House Speaker Chris Sprowls said it would provide new resources to reduce infant mortality. 

Stargel said the bill is neither pro-choice nor pro-life: “It is a bill that’s saying we support children, we support babies, born and unborn, to make sure that the state is focusing on that with our policies.” She has said she believes life begins at conception. 

Within 24 hours of those comments, allies of Planned Parenthood of Florida, including representatives of the ACLU of Florida, Florida Rising, the Florida Access Network and students from Florida State and Florida A&M universities vowed to take the fight for abortion access to the streets and the ballot box. 

All sitting state legislators and DeSantis are up for reelection in November. 

Rep. Michele Rayner warns conservatives that their direct assault on abortion rights will forge a political force that will vote them out of office.

“I have this to say to the governor and to the sponsors: You can bring it on,” said Rep. Michelle Rayner, D-Tampa, at a rally on the steps of the old Capitol Wednesday. 

Rayner predicted threats to reproductive services will forge a political force, and if lawmakers “do not listen to the people, the people will make sure they don’t have a seat of power.” 

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, stood next to Rayner and promised to “do everything in our power” to protect abortion rights. Eskamani said it was ironic that after DeSantis focused on freedom in his annual State of the State address, he then endorsed a measure to restrict the freedom to choose an abortion. 

Pointing a finger at the Capitol where lawmakers had just broken for lunch, Eskamani — who once worked for Planned Parenthood — vowed to take the fight “to the streets.” 

Houck said “that sentiment has been part of the national conversation with the Texas and Mississippi laws,” adding he could not readily think of a comparable medical issue that spurred political organizing the same way. 

Rep. Erin Grall gives her closing remarks after nearly four hours of debate on HB 265, which would require parental consent for abortion, on the House floor at the Capitol Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. The bill passed 75-43.

Similarities between Florida, Mississippi abortion measures

The Stargel and Grall measure mirrors the Mississippi law before the U.S. Supreme Court. Questions the justices asked about that statute led experts to speculate the court is poised to strike down the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion a constitutional right. 

"It seems there are six justices who think that Roe v. Wade is either to be eliminated entirely or radically overhauled," Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler said. 

Ziegler is an expert on the legal history of reproductive rights and spoke to the USA TODAY Network-Florida Capital Bureau in December, after justices considered Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women Health Organization

A ruling is expected this summer and Stargel told reporters the Legislature “will adjust accordingly” once the Supreme Court rules. Comments like that, said Planned Parenthood policy director Annie Filkowski, sent reproductive rights activists into “disaster planning.” 

The organization operates 11 clinics in central and south Florida that offer reproductive services including abortion. 

“It’s all hands on deck to protect our patients at all costs and make sure there’s a path for them to get care … that would not be there under this bill,” Filkowski said. 

A Stargel/Grall parental consent proposal in 2021 drew activists from both sides of the debate to the state capitol

Given the prevalence of abortion, Filkowski considers the upcoming debate to be a moment of truth for lawmakers and their supporters, such as when political strategy collides with real life experiences.  

“One in four women have had an abortion and there are people who are quiet and sit on the side and it’s really depressing,” Filkowski said. 

If abortion access is restricted in Florida, the closest facility for a Floridian would be in North Carolina, which has a 72-hour wait period. Travel, lodging, time off from work add up to make cost an obstacle, Filkowski, Rayner and Eskamani all have said.   

While Ziegler, the law professor, advises that any new restrictions would be subject to the privacy clause in the Florida Constitution, Filkowski fears such a review with the current makeup of the Florida Supreme Court would be just a formality. 

“That’s why this fight is such a big fight,” said Filkowski. 

An analysis by FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation website, finds that most Americans don’t want to undo Roe v. Wade but are not opposed to some restrictions earlier than the current 24 weeks. 

Marty Monroe, pink mask, sits on the Capitol steps during a rally to oppose a 15-week ban on abortion

Florida abortion bill "like rolling back to the dark ages," one opponent says

Marty Monroe was among the first to arrive at the recent, hastily organized Planned Parenthood rally. She said she would chaperone women to abortion clinics when she was a FSU student in the 1970s.  

Sitting on the Capitol steps, Monroe watched Filkowski set up the public address system and commented on what she saw as the indifference of lobbyists and lawmakers walking by during a midday break in committee hearings. 

“It is like rolling back to the dark ages,” said Monroe about the latest bill. “I’ve been doing this for forty years. I’m exhausted.” 

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, also a Democratic gubernatorial candidate this year, stood with the women during the rally but did not speak. Afterward, she endorsed the plan to use abortion access to organize a mid-term election push. 

Fried said both she and Eskamani flipped seats and defeated Republicans in 2018 because of voter frustration with the Legislature on social issues like guns, minimum wage and medical marijuana. 

Activists stand before a quilt representing the experiences of 100 women at a Tallahassee rally in support of abortion rights

At that point, Monroe and three other women walked by with the huge quilt whose panels represented 100 women’s stories about reproductive freedom. It was used as a backdrop for the rally. 

Fried was asked whether abortion opponents have just worn out supporters like Monroe. 

“That’s certainly been their tactic. They bring up this issue time and time again and it is exhausting,” said Fried, watching the four older women walk across the Capitol courtyard. 

“I appreciate the fight that they had and I stand on their shoulders, but now it’s time for my generation and the generation after to pick up the ball,” she added. 

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee

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