DeSantis' abortion views could get renewed attention in post-Roe landscape

Zac Anderson John Kennedy
Tallahassee Democrat

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed laws requiring parental consent for minors seeking an abortion and outlawing the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and once said he'd go even further and back a "heartbeat" bill that effectively moves the cutoff for an abortion to roughly six weeks of pregnancy.

With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision protecting abortion rights, the new possibilities for abortion legislation in a post-Roe landscape could put increased attention on DeSantis’ abortion views as he runs for reelection, heightening awareness of what a governor can achieve on the issue, the stakes involved and where DeSantis’ political ambitions might lead him in the future.

A leaked Supreme Court draft opinion published Monday night by Politico, if released as is, would leave states in charge of abortion regulations.

DeSantis is widely viewed as a top contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, and has been eager not to get outflanked on the right. He has been at the forefront of nearly every major conservative policy fight.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters before signing a 15-week abortion ban into law Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Kissimmee, Fla. The move comes amid a growing conservative push to restrict abortion ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could limit access to the procedure nationwide.  (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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Pushing measures like a heartbeat bill — which DeSantis backed in 2018 when he was campaigning — could help him in a presidential primary. First, though, DeSantis faces a November reelection fight against a Florida Democratic Party that has appeared anemic in recent years but could get new life from the abortion fight.

Losing Roe’s protections could animate the Democratic base and heighten the stakes for mid-term races up and down the ballot in Florida, where Republicans don't appear to have the same advantage on the issue as they do in other conservative-leaning states.

DeSantis, appearing in the Fort Myers area Tuesday afternoon, was measured in his first public response to the Supreme Court leak, citing his opposition to abortion but appearing reluctant to leap too quickly into a still evolving story. 

Florida Voice for the Unborn, an anti-abortion organization, wrote DeSantis Tuesday urging him to add a proposed ban on abortion to a scheduled special session of the Legislature later this month on property insurance.

Asked about addressing abortion in the special session, DeSantis didn't commit to any new measures immediately.

“If you look at the protections that I signed into law a couple weeks ago, those were the strongest that Florida has seen in decades," he said.

'We're not the most pro-life state by any stretch'

A University of North Florida survey released in February found that a majority of Florida voters opposed new abortion restrictions approved by the Legislature this year.

"We're not the most pro-life state by any stretch," said UNF political science professor Michael Binder, who noted that Florida draws a lot of northern transplants and doesn't have the concentration of "traditional southern Baptists" as other southern states.

DeSantis took relatively modest actions on the abortion issue during the first years of his governorship. The parental consent bill he approved in 2020 was a notable move, but much less aggressive than the bills being pursued in many states.

The governor went further this year with the measure outlawing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.  

The 15-week abortion ban is a big shift in Florida. It’s the most consequential abortion legislation in modern memory. Until the bill passed, it was legal to get an abortion up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

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Yet even the 15-week ban is less restrictive than what many conservative states are pursuing. It impacts a relatively small number of abortions.

In 2019, there were 71,914 abortions performed in Florida, according to numbers reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 1,607 of those were performed after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

States increasingly have gone further. Fetal heartbeat laws gained momentum. Texas — where Gov. Greg Abbott is a potential 2024 DeSantis primary opponent — passed a heartbeat law last year. Idaho’s governor signed a heartbeat bill in March that was modeled on the Texas law.

Banning abortions entirely

Banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy is a dramatic change, but the ultimate goal for many abortion opponents is a total ban or near-total ban.

Alabama passed a near-total ban on abortions in 2019 that was blocked by a court. According to Guttmacher Institute, 13 states have “trigger” laws that will completely ban abortions if Roe is overturned.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds up a 15-week abortion ban law after signing it, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Kissimmee, Fla.  The move comes amid a growing conservative push to restrict abortion ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could limit access to the procedure nationwide.  (AP Photo/John Raoux)

While DeSantis deflected Tuesday about pushing new abortion restrictions in the special session, state House Democrats are wary.

“We would not be surprised if the governor did this; he’s on a race to the bottom to be the most extreme presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2024, but if he chooses to do this, we will be ready to fight,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, adding the effort “would have consequences” for his reelection bid in November. 

Other Democrats added that this moment should be a rallying moment for abortion rights advocates. 

“I’m telling the women and families out there, and everyone with a daughter, that you need to get involved now. You need to make sure you’re elected officials hear from you and if they don’t represent your values, that you vote them out,” said Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston.

UNF's Binder said that if Roe ends and abortion bans start taking effect, it could shift the political climate heading into the midterms.

“Potentially, it’s going to focus the debate," he said. "You're going to be hearing a lot about abortion."

Abortion could become “the social issue of these midterm elections across the country" and one that animates Democrats, Binder said.

"I could see this mobilizing a Democratic base that hasn't been particularly excited in general," he said.

'Gut-wrenching day for women and reproductive freedom in our country'

Top Florida Democrats are voicing alarm about the leaked Supreme Court opinion and vowing to make abortion a central campaign issue.

"The women of our country are under direct attack by right-wing radicals," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democratic and a candidate for governor. "Overturning our freedom over our bodies is unconstitutional, unacceptable, and taking us back to a dark, dark time. If they can control our bodies, what do we have left? If this ruling is published, it simply cannot stand and I will do whatever it takes to protect the women of Florida."

Fried's opponent in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, said Monday was "a gut-wrenching day for women and reproductive freedom in our country."

"Now, more than ever, we need to fight tirelessly to protect a woman’s right to choose," Crist said. "The stakes in this election could not be higher."

Planned Parenthood organized "Save Roe" rallies across the state Tuesday.

Yet there are many other voters who aren't motivated by abortion policy or don't rate it highly enough to base their vote on it, said UNF's Binder, who questioned whether abortion politics could be a decisive issue in 2022.

“Party in a lot of ways is trumping policy," he said, adding: “It’s hard for me to see this singular issue transforming an election."

Binder said the issue could have the clearest impact in the Democratic primary, where Crist is a former Republican who has described himself as "pro-life."

"Amongst the primary electorate in a Democratic party where this is the primary issue I would suspect it creates problems for him," Binder said. "This is not an issue Charlie Crist wants to talk about a great deal in a primary.”

The end of Roe v. Wade appears to be imminent.

POLITICO reported that the draft Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito stated: “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.”

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” Alito continued, referencing another opinion upholding abortion rights. “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

If that opinion becomes final, it would free up Florida and other states to pursue more restrictive abortion measures, although the Florida Supreme Court also could be an impediment.

A 1980 amendment to Florida’s Constitution added a right to privacy. It states that "every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into his private life."

In 1989 the state Supreme Court invoked the privacy clause in the constitution to strike down a state law requiring parental consent for abortion.

DeSantis has reshaped the court with his appointments, though.

The governor soon will have the opportunity to appoint a replacement for Justice Alan Lawson, who is retiring Aug. 31. That new justice will mean DeSantis has named four of the seven justices on the court since taking office in 2019.

Abortion rights advocates have been concerned about the conservative DeSantis court, fearing justices could reinterpret that privacy right. Even two years ago, they chose not to challenge a new parental consent law, fearing it could lead justices to determine the privacy right no longer applied to abortion.

"That would open Florida up to a wide range of abortion restrictions that have previously been found unconstitutional," Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, told Gannet-USA Today Florida last year.

DeSantis said Tuesday that he is expecting the 15-week abortion ban to be challenged at the state level.

“We’re mindful that we also will be challenged under the Florida Constitution and statutes, we think we’re going to win there," he said.

Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at zac.anderson@heraldtribune.com