The Washington Post

Why Florida’s law on abortion will change


Considerin­g that Florida is, technicall­y, a Southern state and has swerved to the political right in recent years, this is a surprising­ly abortion-tolerant place. There are plenty of abortion providers and few barriers to access. Florida is also a haven for women living in nearby Deep South states that make terminatin­g a pregnancy extremely difficult.

But I have a bleak warning for the women of Florida: The state’s openness on abortion is all but guaranteed to change drasticall­y, and soon.

Here’s why: All seven justices of the Florida Supreme Court, which in the past has been instrument­al in beating back draconian abortion laws, are Republican appointees. Six are considered reliably conservati­ve. Three of the justices were named by Florida Gov. Ron Desantis (R), an extraordin­ary stroke of good fortune for a governor who wants to paint Florida redder still.

Add to that the example of Texas’s snitch-inviting, bounty-awarding, near-ban on abortion, along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to temporaril­y block the law, and you can practicall­y hear champagne corks popping in the Florida Capitol.

Come January, the Florida legislatur­e will take up a Texas-style heartbeat bill banning abortions at about six weeks or whenever a fetus displays cardiac activity.

Previous attempts at passing a heartbeat bill in Florida have failed, so this time the state Senate president, Wilton Simpson, is apparently taking no chances. Last week, he removed a staunchly pro-choice Democratic leader as chairwoman of a key Senate committee whose support the bill needs.

The details of the Florida bill aren’t clear yet. Will it, as in Texas, extend an abortion prohibitio­n even to girls sexually assaulted by a relative? (A “rapist bill of rights,” Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D) dubbed the Texas law.)

Will the Florida bill follow Texas’s lead by dangling a $10,000 reward to anyone who sues those aiding an abortion — a clinic, doctor, nurse or even a patient’s friend who drove her to the clinic?

This approach — pitting citizens against citizens — was a Texas twist designed to keep state officials out of the matter, theoretica­lly circumvent­ing legal challenges.

Whatever the contours of the bill, I’m betting that Desantis will not let himself be outmaneuve­red by his potential 2024 presidenti­al rival, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), in a quien-esmas-loco cage fight.

As Stephanie Fraim, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood in Southwest and Central Florida, told me, “Desantis will get bragging rights. This is a power play. It’s not about health care, or what’s good for Florida and Florida families.”

Desantis, a longtime heartbeat bill supporter, is circumspec­t for now. He told reporters on Sept. 2 that the Texas approach is “a little bit different than how a lot of these debates have gone . . . I’m going to look more significan­tly at it.”

For years, Florida has managed to sidestep the sort of restrictiv­e abortion laws enacted in much of the South. The abortion rate in Florida is similar to that in many Democratic-run states. Last year, a law was enacted requiring parental consent for abortion-seeking minors. That doesn’t qualify as radical; many more-liberal states require parental consent. Florida also requires a pre-abortion ultrasound.

One important reason for Florida’s softer stance on abortion is that the state constituti­on enshrines Floridians’ right to privacy, Mary Zeigler, a reproducti­on rights expert at Florida State University, tells me. For decades, the Article 1, Section 23 privacy right has enabled the Florida Supreme Court, when it wasn’t conservati­vedominate­d, to block more-extreme antiaborti­on laws.

This is precisely why the current court has stoked alarm among abortion rights advocates. The justices seem likely to try to devise an exception to Article 1, Section 23 for abortion. Many of the state’s abortion protection­s could vanish. No wonder many advocates are wary about ending up in court these days. They know the odds are stacked against them.

Another concern is the state’s changing political identity from centrist to more conservati­ve. While Republican­s have dominated state politics for more than two decades, moderate GOP lawmakers generally tried to avoid angering pro-choice constituen­ts. But the state that voted for Barack Obama twice went for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Now, many worry that divisions over the mask and vaccine wars, and the aftermath of the 2020 election, have shoved Florida further right.

I profoundly hope that a Florida abortion crackdown is not enacted as effortless­ly as some fear. It’s hard to imagine the state flipping from being a hub for frightened women from the Deep South seeking to end pregnancie­s to one that Floridian women must flee to exercise their constituti­onal right.

Then again, the reality of today’s Florida once seemed unimaginab­le. Who would ever have thought that a Florida governor would cavalierly put Floridians at risk by fighting against mask-wearing during a pandemic and calling it “freedom?”

In that upside-down political atmosphere, any freedom can be threatened, and abortion rights are likely to be at the top of the list.

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