TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawmakers are moving forward with a near-total ban on abortions in the state, plus a second bill placing new requirements on doctors who perform abortions.
By an 8-3 vote Monday afternoon, a House criminal justice panel voted to advance the more sweeping piece of legislation (HB 865), which would make performing an abortion or operating an abortion clinic a first-degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Just hours earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated its long-standing ruling affirming women's right to the procedure.
"The bill recognizes that both the mother and the baby are citizens of the state of Florida... and we are therefore compelled to protect their lives," said Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, the bill's sponsor.
He has put forward similar legislation for seven years, but it had never before been considered by a committee, the first step required to pass a bill into law, until Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, agreed to consider it Monday. Trujillo, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, did not discuss the bill during debate and left the committee room without commenting.
"The Legislature finds that all human life comes from the Creator, has an inherent value that cannot be quantified by man, and begins at the earliest biological development of a fertilized human egg," the bill says.
It goes on to say that "personal liberty is not a license to kill or otherwise destroy any form of human life," and that the state has an interest in stopping abortions, unless the safety of the mother is in question.
It's likely that Van Zant's proposal, if passed by the Legislature, would lead to lawsuits citing the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. That became even more likely Monday morning after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an abortion ban in North Dakota.
That law prohibited abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The law never took effect, but abortion rights supporters called it the strictest anti-abortion law in the country.
Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, pointed to the court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, as well as a Florida constitutional protection of privacy to debate against Van Zant's bill.
"I think it's clearly unconstitutional, I think it violates the rights of women on so many levels," Kerner said. "But we are a nation of laws, not men, and I take my oath very, very seriously."
Van Zant's is one of three proposals abortion-rights groups are fighting against in the Legislature.
Last week, a House panel gave the first nod of approval to tougher licensing requirements (HB 233) for abortion clinics that would hold them to the same or higher standards as surgical centers. The third proposal (HB 1411) also passed its first House committee Monday afternoon, by a 7-6 vote. The wide-ranging bill blocks state funding for facilities that perform elective abortions, sets new requirements for inspections by the Agency for Health Care Administration, and requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges and agreements to transfer patients to a hospital located within 30 minutes of the facility where an abortion is performed.
"I believe that the bill protects the health and wellbeing of mothers in Florida, those who make the choice to have an abortion," said bill sponsor Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland.
Abortion-rights activists say Burton's legislation is a restriction that could force some clinics to close.
"It's medically unnecessary regulation," said Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates executive director Laura Goodhue. "Admitting privileges have nothing to do with the quality of care an abortion provider provides. In fact, admitting privileges are often hard to get because abortion is a safe procedure."
Van Zant and Burton's bills gained support of most Republicans on the committees.