‘We are not going down without a fight.’ Abortion advocates rally


Floridians will rally this weekend in solidarity with abortion-rights advocates across the country to mark the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that made access to an abortion a federal right in the United States

In Florida, however, the marches will be more of a rallying cry to lawmakers to hold the line on the state’s abortion laws. Most abortion advocates believe Florida’s 15-week ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest could be further restricted in a matter of weeks.

“This is about letting the leadership of Florida know we are not going down without a fight,” said Aurelie Colon Larrauri, Florida state policy advocate for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, who will attend a rally in Tallahassee on Sunday.

No one knows yet just how drastic abortion restrictions could become in Florida, but many lawmakers expect to see state leaders tighten the abortion law this spring.

The power to decide whether women have the right to an abortion in Florida falls to state leaders now that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down Roe v. Wade. Other southern states like Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee already have implemented near-total bans.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is considered a contender for U.S. President in 2024, previously has said he would support a bill banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could be as early as six weeks. Such a bill hasn’t been filed yet for the regular legislative session in Tallahassee that starts March 7. The governor could call a special session sooner on any issue and then push to pass new restrictions on abortion, some legislators say.

“We are expecting further restrictions because that is what the governor wants,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, Florida state representative for North Florida and leader of the Florida House Democrats. “It is not what Floridians want.”

“Any move to limit abortion is a wrong move and takes Floridians in a direction they don’t want to go in,” Driskell said.

Incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo has said she wants to see Florida’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks reduced to 12 weeks, with exceptions for rape and incest. She did not respond to requests seeking comment on whether she would push for the reduction in the upcoming session.

Driskell said those who oppose lawmakers making choices for pregnant women are readying for the worst, a potential total ban. “We are keeping our ear to ground so when time to have the debate comes, we are prepared.”

The Republican Party in Florida, whose lawmakers are more conservative, now controls the offices of governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and both chambers of the state Legislature, and represents a majority on the state Supreme Court. The party also holds a majority on committees including the health policy panel where abortion bills are assigned. Requests from the Sun Sentinel seeking comment on proposed abortion restrictions from Republican leaders, including DeSantis, went unanswered.

Right to life activists say they have been in Tallahassee meeting with lawmakers and pushing for tighter restrictions.

“We have expressed to the governor that we don’t want March 7 to roll around and there to be no opportunity for further prohibition on abortion in Florida,” said Andrew Shirvell, founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn.

Shirvell said his group looks at Texas law as the gold standard and is lobbying for the same kind of legislation in Florida. Texas bans abortions except to save the life of a pregnant patient.

As a potential contender for U.S. president, DeSantis has national pro-life groups watching his actions.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America, told the Associated Press, her group would like to see a national cut-off line after which abortion would not be permitted in any state. She said her organization has begun vetting prospective candidates for president over their views on the abortion issue.

Dannenfelser said she met recently with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential leading Republican candidate, and came away “incredibly impressed,” but said it was still too early for her organization to endorse anyone.

Meanwhile, Florida Democratic lawmakers say with the Republican control in Tallahassee, they are powerless to stop new state abortion legislation supported by DeSantis. It is up to Floridians, they say, to make their voices heard by lawmakers. A Pew Research poll shows more than 56% of Floridians support abortion rights in most or all cases. That is consistent with a poll conducted by the University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab that found that 60% of Florida’s registered voters oppose the 15-week abortion ban.

“It’s really important every-day Floridians realize what is at stake,” said Florida Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani. “Most of the voters didn’t understand how dangerous DeSantis is when it comes to abortion. He doesn’t have a choice but to choose an extremist position. He already is getting attacked by the far right.“

Abortion advocates representing Hispanic communities say even a small change that further limits abortion will create an outsized impact on minority women. “What politicians don’t understand is these laws have real-world consequences, especially for communities of color,” said Colon Larrauri, of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

Black and brown women have less access to healthcare, higher rates of complication in childbirth, and they are less able to travel three states over for abortions, Colon Larrauri said. “They need to have the choice to make decisions for themselves.”

Lobbying groups on both sides of abortion rights recognize what could be at stake this spring.

“We will work with colleagues to keep the most restrictive proposals off the agenda,” said Amy Weintraub, Reproductive Rights Program Director at Progress Florida. “That will not be easy to do when the governor is trying heard to appeal to the far right, but we can’t go quietly. We must draw national attention to make sure Americans are aware of his anti-abortion stance as he tries to get on the national stage.”

The marches and lobbying in Tallahassee are happening as Florida abortion clinics are overwhelmed, especially in Northern Florida, which borders states with near-total abortion bans.

Planned Parenthood of Florida reports the number of patients it sees in its clinics in Tallahassee and Jacksonville has quadrupled since Roe v Wade was struck down. Florida tightened its restrictions from 24 weeks to 15 weeks, effective July 1, 2022. However, multiple states made abortion illegal, causing Florida to become a “receiving state,” for pregnant women from Mississippi, Alabama and Texas among others.

In Jacksonville, as many as 80 to 85 women a day have appointments at the Planned Parenthood clinic, which is trying to accommodate Floridians as well as those who travel to the state. Jessica Wannemacher, manager of the Planned Parenthood Health Center in Jacksonville said the clinic has extended its days and hours, hired more staff and is flying in doctors from other states to help out.

In Florida, a newly imposed 24-hour waiting period between giving consent and having a procedure also has led to an increase in appointments, with two visits now required.

“Any new limits could have a big impact,” Wannemacher said. “We already have to turn away women who travel to Florida, show up at the clinic and learn they are too far along.”

Even a reduction from 15 to 12 weeks would reverberate, she said. “It takes some women at lot of time to get the care they need, and they often think they are not as far along as they are.”

In South Florida, Alexa Lane, said her women’s clinic, Presidential Woman’s Center, juggles appointments to get patients in twice before they reach 15 weeks, which is not a small feat.

“Time is not on their side,” Lane said. “We are booked out at least a week.” The women who come from out of state often have to wait longer than 24 hours between appointments as the center tries to accommodate Florida women, too, she said.

Most women overcome hurdles to get to the clinic — paying travel costs, taking time off work, finding transportation, Lane said. “By adding obstacles and preventing access, a lot of these women who live under the poverty level will be forced to have a child and their family will struggle.”

In some states, medication abortion just became easier, but that is not the case in Florida.

Medication abortion has been used by more than 4 million women, and it now makes up the majority of abortion care in America. On Jan. 3, the Food and Drug Administration released new guidance to allow retail pharmacies to provide medication abortion for the first time. Already, Walgreens and CVS have announced they plan to offer the medication in states where abortion is legal.

But Florida won’t allow that.

The Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration sent a letter warning pharmacies that if they distribute the abortion pill, it is illegal. Florida law says the pill can be given out only by a doctor and in person.

The state agency made it clear, via email, that willfully violating the abortion law could result in criminal penalties.

The abortion medication — a two-pill series legal up to 10 weeks — causes women to miscarry the fetus in their homes and differs from Plan B taken the morning after as emergency contraception.

The fate of abortion law in Florida sits in the hands of the state Supreme Court, for now.

The Florida Supreme Court is considering a constitutional challenge to the law DeSantis signed into legislation in April that bars doctors from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The legal challenge claims the Florida law violates the state constitution’s right to privacy that includes abortion.

In South Carolina, a similar challenge just played out, giving abortion advocates a victory. The South Carolina Supreme Court on Jan. 5 struck down a ban on abortion after six weeks, ruling the restriction violates a state constitutional right to privacy.

The Florida Supreme Court is made up mostly of DeSantis appointees, and a ruling awaits.

“Everything I am hearing about at the state capitol is there is still waiting game going on with the Florida Supreme Court,” said Shirvell, the pro-life advocate. “Legislators are telling us they can’t do anything until they know what the Florida Supreme Court will do.”

Shirvell says pro-life organizations will continue to lobby, regardless. “We are not gong to wait for the court to come to right conclusion. Now is the time to press. The iron is hot, now.”

With the constitutional right to abortion no longer the rule of the land, marches for and against abortion are are planned this weekend, the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Vice President Kamala Harris will speak in Tallahassee on Sunday to promote national legislation to protect abortion rights.

State Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, urges Floridians to “wake up” and speak out if they believe they have a right to choose their reproductive fate.

“We thought we were done after 15 weeks, but now it looks like they will just keep going with restrictions,” Bartleman said. “Some states are so extreme they are going after birth control pills. What reproductive rights will be taken away from Floridians next? You need to let your voices be heard.”

With much on the line, Rep. Eskamani said all Floridians should know who their state representative and senators are and voice their opinions.

‘If you come to Tallahassee during session to fight back, we welcome you,” she said. “We need every-day folks to show up. Bending votes is challenging but we can win the public narrative, and signal to Republicans in a swing state that this is a dangerous issue to be on the wrong side of.”

Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at cgoodman@sunsentinel.com.


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