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Crist vetoes ultrasound abortion bill

TALLAHASSEE — As he positions himself to the center in the U.S. Senate race, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday vetoed a measure requiring most women to pay for an ultrasound and hear a description of the fetus before they can have an abortion.

“This bill places an inappropriate burden on a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy,” Crist said in his veto message.

The measure would have required most women to have an ultrasound performed before having an abortion, unless the woman can prove she is a victim of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking. Women could opt out of viewing the ultrasound by signing a form.

Anti-abortion advocates and Crist’s Republican critics in the Legislature immediately pounced on the decision. John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council, called the veto “profoundly disappointing” and said it’s now “crystal clear that he’s pro-abortion.”

Crist’s move marks the third veto of a high-priority bill passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. While lawmakers were still in session and he was still a Republican, Crist vetoed a campaign finance bill that he said would reinstate legislative “slush funds.” He also vetoed a controversial teacher tenure bill that earned him wide acclaim among educators.

Now, the newly independent governor is tacking to the center in his U.S. Senate bid and polls show him attracting votes from Democrats and independents.

HB 1143 began as a routine measure regulating nursing homes, but senators added the ultrasound provision in the final days of the session without public testimony in legislative committees.

The bill passed the Senate 23-16 and in the House 76-44.

The legislation also would have prohibited private health care insurers from covering the cost of abortions if the plan receives government subsidies. Designed to limit coverage for abortions under the new federal healthcare law, the provision would have required women with those plans to buy extra coverage or pay out-of-pocket for an abortion.

But the ultrasound requirement received the most attention of all of the bill’s sections. A similar provision failed on a rare tie vote in the Senate two years ago. Supporters called the bill “the most significant pro-life measure that’s ever happened in Florida’s history.”

Crist has long said he is personally anti-abortion but is hesitant to impose his views on others. He supports the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as the law of the land.

The other major candidates in the Senate race — though on opposite sides of the issue — harshly criticized Crist for the veto. Republican Marco Rubio noted that Crist has recently removed the “pro-life/family” section of his website.

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., had called on Crist to veto the bill, but nevertheless said the governor “can never escape his anti-choice past.” Meek highlighted his own abortion rights credentials and even set up a website chronicling Crist’s anti-abortion statements when he was still a Republican.

Jeff Greene, who polls show is statistically tied with Meek in the Democratic primary race, supports Roe v. Wade. “I believe that abortion should be safe, legal and rare,” he says on his campaign web site.

The bill was the last piece of legislation sent to Crist, likely to give advocates time to ramp up pressure on the governor to sign the bill. Crist vetoed the measure only four days after receiving it, saying he didn’t want to add any unnecessary delay to the process.

As Crist made his final decision, a group known as Bound 4 Life held a daily silent prayer in the Capitol rotunda in support of the bill. On Tuesday, 14 members of the group stood silently with red tape covering their mouths and the word “life” written on the tape.

“Anything that can save more babies is something that’s good legislation to be passed,” said Jared Olsen, an organizer for the group. He noted the red tape represents the “silent cries of the unborn in the womb.”

With the veto, Crist places himself among the voters he needs to target in his Senate race. A May 14-18 poll by Ipsos Public Affairs for the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald and Bay News 9 showed that 55 percent of voters want him to veto the bill, compared with 31 percent who want him to sign it.

Those figures conflict with the feedback Crist’s office received on the bill. As of Thursday evening, 36,000 people wrote or called in support of the bill, while 27,000 people asked for a veto.