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Abortion rights supporters worry about a bill to expand wrongful death lawsuits

Rep. Ashley Gantt (D-Miami) tried to amend the bill to protect abortion providers. It was rejected along party lines.
Florida House of Representatives
Rep. Ashley Gantt (D-Miami) tried to amend the bill to protect abortion providers. It was rejected along party lines.

The bill would allow parents to sue for damages in the death of an unborn child. Though bill sponsors say it's not abortion-related, attempts to make that clear in the text have so far failed.

Abortion rights supporters in Florida are concerned about legislation that could allow parents to sue for civil damages in the death of a fetus.

The bill would add “parents of an unborn child” to the list of people allowed to file wrongful death lawsuits. It specifies that legal action could not be brought against the mother.

Many states recognize wrongful death claims of unborn children as valid, but only if the fetus was viable at the time of death, meaning it could survive outside the uterus — which typically occurs around 24 weeks into pregnancy. The Florida proposal could allow for lawsuits at any stage of development.

State law already allows criminal charges in the death of a fetus, but it exempts those involved in legal abortions from prosecution.

The civil liability legislation, sponsored by Sen. Erin Grall (R-Vero Beach) and Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka (R-Fort Myers), doesn’t include similar protections.

Persons-Mulicka recently stressed to a House committee that her bill, HB 651, is not abortion-related.

But critics of the measure are skeptical, including Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. She worries the bill could allow men to sue doctors or those who help women obtain abortions.

Goodhue cited a Texas man who last year sued his ex-wife’s friends for wrongful death, accusing them of helping her obtain an abortion. The friends eventually countersued and claimed he used the lawsuit to continue abuse against his ex-wife.

“If this is not a bill to make it more difficult for people to access reproductive health care, then they [lawmakers] should specify that in the bill language,” said Goodhue.

Rep. Ashley Gantt (D-Miami) tried to amend the bill this month to protect abortion providers. It was rejected along party lines.

Another change that Goodhue said could help address concerns would be to amend the text to only allow the pregnant person to file a wrongful death claim.

“That eliminates the father who could be an abuser or a rapist or what have you from holding additional power over that person,” Goodhue said.

Persons-Mulicka and Grall also sponsored Florida’s current 15-week abortion ban and a six-week ban that could take effect pending a Florida Supreme Court ruling.

Opponents of abortion rights, including the group Florida Voice for the Unborn, spoke in support of HB 651, with executive director Andrew Shirvell recently calling it “a good step in the right direction recognizing that unborn children are persons."

Goodhue worries that sort of language could support future attempts to restrict reproductive rights.

The House bill is moving through committees. The Senate version has not had a hearing yet.

Copyright 2024 WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.