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Discussing Florida's abortion amendment and the effect of a six-week ban

 Abortion supporters rally at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Sept. 14, 2022.
Julio Ochoa
WUSF Public Media
Abortion supporters rally at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Sept. 14, 2022.

House Speaker Paul Renner said the language of the amendment is ill-defined. Meanwhile, Dr. Chelsea Daniels said people are already feeling the impact of the six-week ban taking effect May 1.

A constitutional amendment on abortion rights will be on the Florida ballot in November. It comes after the Florida Supreme Court released an opinion on the issue April 1.

The court also ruled to uphold Florida’s current 15-week abortion ban, allowing a six-week ban to take effect May 1.

“I think it's honestly kind of difficult at this point for any of us to totally imagine what it's going to feel like on May 1, because it is just such a dystopian reality for so many of us,” Dr. Chelsea Daniels, a physician with Planned Parenthood and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, said Friday on "The Florida Roundup."

If 60% of voters vote “yes” on the amendment, it will enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution, overriding the six-week ban.

Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, however, said he believes the issue should be legislatively determined.

The ballot summary for the abortion amendment is as follows: “No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider. This amendment does not change the Legislature’s constitutional authority to require notification to a parent or guardian before a minor has an abortion.”

Renner called the amendment ill-defined and poorly drafted, noting its use of the term “viability.” Florida statutes define viability as “the stage of fetal development when the life of a fetus is sustainable outside the womb through standard medical measures.”

“So when they look at viability, doesn't tell you what does that mean,” Renner said. “Is that 20 weeks, is that 25 weeks? I've got a 2-year-old and you could argue that he's not viable. He can’t dress himself, he can't feed himself, etc.”

He said other terms aside from “viability” are unclear as well.

“But beyond that is this health exception that follows it, which is not well-defined, it's in the hands of a health care provider that's not defined; is that a receptionist at the abortion clinic? Is that a tattoo artist? It doesn't say,” Renner said. “It's certainly not a physician, as other amendments in other states have provided. So you're not even talking to a doctor to make that determination on what could be something that's risky to the mother at a late stage in pregnancy.”

Daniels disagreed with Renner’s point.

“I mean, my gut reaction that I'm sitting here furrowing my brow and feeling quite insulted,” Daniels said.

“About what a health care provider is, I'll speak just to Florida. It is physicians, it's doctors with MD or DO degrees who are performing abortions. So when we say health care provider in the state of Florida, health care provider can be a broader term to include health care allies, such as nurses and physical therapists, but in the state of Florida, only MDs and DOs so physicians, board-certified physicians are performing abortions. The notion that something like a tattoo artist, I've also heard massage therapist, would or could provide an abortion is just, frankly, it's so offensive and absolutely baseless.”

Renner said proponents of the amendment should have defined these terms in the measure itself.

“… I can guarantee you, if it does pass, the proponents will tell us exactly what it was supposed to mean, and what we can and can't do. And I just think there's very little for the Legislature to do at that point that will not then land us, again, in endless litigation,” he noted.

Renner also shared what he believes would happen if the amendment is approved in November.

“Florida would become the haven for importation of abortion throughout the Southeast because it was that before we passed our recent bill,” Renner said, referring to the six-week abortion ban taking effect soon. “But it would become even more so if we have laws that go well beyond the nations of Europe and look more like a China or some other countries that have very, very open-ended abortion laws.”

“Most folks don't know they're pregnant” at six weeks

In reference to the six-week ban, Daniels said she’s already seeing its effect, even if not all patients are aware of the new restrictions.

“So since that decision came out Monday night, I have since worked two full days in my clinic and fielding questions and just about every patient encounter from really, really scared people, who are scared about whether or not they're going to be able to receive this care, are scared about what it means if they can't receive the care," Daniels said. "And it just goes to show how laws and judicial decisions affect the lives of individuals in really, really tangible, life-altering ways.”

Daniels said some important tasks right now are determining how far along patients are in their pregnancy, as well as helping them figure out if they’re pregnant.

“The reason for that being that at six weeks of pregnancy, which is when this ban would be, most folks don't know they're pregnant," Daniels said. "And so our messaging right now needs to be about how to make sure that we can get folks as aware as possible of their pregnancy as early as possible so that they not only are aware of their pregnancy, but have time to get an appointment.”

Following the ban, Daniels said she expects to turn away most patients. On average, she sees patients who are eight to 11 weeks along in their pregnancy.

“And so I think the conversations are going to be about where they can go," Daniels said. "And luckily we have a really, really robust network of patient advocates and navigators who can direct folks to care in other states.”

Daniels also noted the ban — and uncertain outcome of the abortion amendment — haven’t affected her decision to practice medicine in Florida.

“I feel really, really motivated by the ballot initiative and how successful we were in obtaining signatures, how successful polling is, so I'm really, really motivated and fired up about November,” Daniels said. “We still need doctors in Florida. Even if government thinks that they have the right to interfere in my medical decision making, we still need doctors and I'm really excited to be one of those doctors.

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Gabriella Pinos