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Florida's abortion bill takes its first step forward with a House panel approval

Two abortion rights marches converged on City Hall in Tampa for a rally in October 2021.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Two abortion rights marches converged on City Hall in Tampa for a rally in October 2021.

The proposal, approved by the House Professions and Public Health Subcommittee in a 12-6 vote, closely resembles a Mississippi abortion law that is before the U.S. Supreme Court

Despite fierce objections from Democrats who argued the proposal is unconstitutional, a Florida House panel on Wednesday approved a controversial bill that would prohibit doctors from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The proposal, approved by the House Professions and Public Health Subcommittee in a 12-6 vote Wednesday, closely resembles a Mississippi abortion law that is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court heard arguments in the case last month.

Democrats on the committee peppered Republicans with questions about whether the bill measure violates the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision — which some advocates for abortion access fear is on the line as the Mississippi law is weighed by a court dominated by conservative justices.

Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican who sponsored the bill, said “that will be a decision for the courts.” Grall told the panel that the significance of the 15-week limit on abortions proposed in the bill was based on being “consistent” with the Mississippi law.

“I believe that we have a unique opportunity in the fact that the Supreme Court is considering 15 weeks right now, and this would allow Florida to save as many babies as possible, as soon as possible,” she said, later telling the committee that the measure could equate to “saving 5,000 babies a year” if it passes.

Grall and Senate Appropriations Chair Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, filed similar 15-week abortion proposals on the first day of the 2022 legislative session last week. The abortion restriction has quickly emerged as one of the most hotly contested issues before lawmakers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last week signaled that he would sign the measure if lawmakers pass it during the 60-day session, saying that he’s “supportive of 15 weeks” and finds the restriction “reasonable.”

The bill does not include an exception for victims of rape and incest, drawing ire from Democrats and opponents of the measure.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who formerly worked at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said she shared a story with her colleagues about a mother who was a victim of rape.

“She is still navigating the trauma of that decision. She is proud to be a mother, but she doesn’t want other people to be stripped away of the option to end their pregnancy. This bill is not moderate. It is extreme,” Eskamani said.

The measure would allow abortions after 15 weeks if a fetus is found to have a “fatal fetal abnormality,” which the bill defines as “a terminal condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of life-saving medical treatment, is incompatible with life outside the womb and will result in death upon birth or imminently thereafter.”

Critics of the bill took aim at a provision that would require two doctors to certify in writing that a fetus has a fatal abnormality before clearing a termination of a pregnancy.

But Grall argued that the two-physician requirement is an “important component to maintain the integrity of the exception, so it is not overused or abused.”

The bill also seeks to create regional infant-mortality review committees that would analyze infant mortality rates, trends and causes in an effort to develop recommendations aimed at reducing deaths.

The measure also would provide pregnant women and women who may become pregnant with information about the risks of using tobacco.

Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, said that Republicans were attempting to be “clever” by wrapping those provisions — which several Democrats on the committee said their party has championed in the past — into the controversial proposal.

But Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, a co-sponsor of the bill, said those sections of the measure are intended to help the health of prospective mothers.

“We focused on improving the quality of care that mothers and children get before and after birth. And we focused on education that not only impacts infant health but maternal health as well. Every baby deserves an opportunity to live,” Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers, said.

The House measure faces two more committees before heading to the floor for a full vote.

Stargel, whose bill has not been vetted by a committee yet, told reporters last week that she was urged to get an abortion when she was a teen but did not have the procedure.

“Many people recommended that I have an abortion and told me that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish things and that my life was going to be destroyed,” she said on Jan. 12. “I don’t fault those people, they were doing what they thought honestly was the case. But many, many women defy those odds, and many of these babies go on to do successful things.”

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Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida