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Faced with the prospect of greater restrictions on abortion access in Florida and across the nation, Democratic lawmakers and abortion rights advocates are seeking to galvanize opposition to the pending limitations and mobilize voters to politically punish those responsible for the rollback.
Seven South Florida members of Congress and state lawmakers, all Democratic women, convened via video conference Monday to decry what they described as an all-out assault on women’s reproductive rights. They condemned Republicans who support the changes.
In Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering cases that could give states approval to restrict, or even eliminate abortion by reversing or scaling back the 1973 Roe vs. Wade opinion that established a constitutional right to abortion.
“A small band of conservative extremists across the county and on the Supreme Court want to end the basic health care and reproductive rights women now possess,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, decrying what she called a “radical right-wing agenda that our mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts, must now confront.”
“Let’s face it. The days of legal and accessible abortion across the country may be numbered,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Democrats charge hypocrisy
The Democrats said anti-abortion Republicans are being hypocritical when they champion freedom from mask and vaccine mandates that prevent the spread of COVID-19, but oppose reproductive freedom.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled he would sign the measure if it gets to his desk, and that he finds the restriction “reasonable.”
“Florida’s governor likes to tell us as the ‘free’ state of Florida except when it comes to a woman’s freedom to choose what’s right for herself, her body, her family or their future,” said Florida Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, who represents Broward.
State Rep. Robin Bartleman, who also represents part of Broward, also pointed to the governor’s use of the phrase. “Governor Ron DeSantis likes to say that Florida is the Free State.”
Bartleman said she had to contemplate whether to have an abortion in 2001 when she was pregnant, and an ultrasound revealed fetal abnormalities. (“The pregnancy terminated on its own” as she was agonizing over what to do.)
“I am a woman who never thought in a million years that I would have to make a decision about having an abortion,” Bartleman said. “That decision was between me, my husband, my doctor and my God. No one else belonged in that room. No one else.”
Several other state lawmakers, one male politician — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, a Democratic candidate for governor — and representatives of Planned Parenthood and the National Council of Jewish women were on the call.
There is no obvious common ground between the differing camps of elected Democratic officials and elected Republican officials.
Speaking last week as the Florida House Professions and Public Health Subcommittee approved House Bill 5, her legislation to ban abortions after 15 weeks, Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican, said the objective was saving lives.
“We will be saving approximately, nearly 5,000 babies a year with this bill being in place,” she said. The total number of abortions is much higher, with most occurring earlier in pregnancy.
A staff analysis of the legislation reported 209,645 live births and 72,073 abortions in Florida in 2020. “And that’s an atrocity. What about the basic human rights and freedoms of those children? What about the privilege that has been stripped away from those children?” Grall said.
The Supreme Court, with justices nominated by former President Donald Trump, appears likely to approve of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion cutoff. Grall said her proposal “would allow Florida to save as many babies as possible as soon as possible after that decision is made.” The Florida Supreme Court has a current majority seen as likely to be more sympathetic to abortion restrictions than past courts.
She offered her own emotional testimony on the subject, explaining that her sister had an abortion at age 20. “I love her and I am here doing this because I honor her. And because we should honor those women who had to make this terrible difficult decision.”
Grall also asserted the ban on abortion after 15 weeks “is not an abortion ban. This is about 15 weeks. This is about having all of your available options.”
Bartleman said Monday that women often don’t have the kinds of screenings that turn up fetal abnormalities before 18 weeks of pregnancy.
The measure does not include an exception for victims of rape and incest. It would allow abortions after 15 weeks if a fetus is found to have a “fatal fetal abnormality,” which the bill defines as “a terminal condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of life-saving medical treatment, is incompatible with life outside the womb and will result in death upon birth or imminently thereafter.” Two doctors would have to certify in writing that a fetus has such a fatal abnormality, something Grall said was needed to prevent the exception from being “overused or abused.”
At the committee hearing last week, Grall said it is opponents of her legislation who “deny truth and facts and science.”
Democrats call for mobilization
Wasserman Schultz, along with South Florida U.S. Reps. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick and Lois Frankel called for a political mobilization in response.
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“It’s more imperative now than ever that we actually organize that we bring people to the polls and we hold every legislator accountable who’s trying to suppress our will and impose their own will,” Cherfilus-McCormick said.
“We need to register new voters like never before. There must be electoral consequences for those who would strip women of our basic right to control our own bodies,” Wasserman Schultz said. “If we elect Democrats to office from the State House to the White House, we can roll back and end these barbaric new laws.”
Wasserman Schultz said the proposed change in state law moving through the Legislature could hurt the state’s economy by prompting women to avoid having their families travel to the tourist-dependent state.
“Florida politicians need to decide if they want to unleash the wrath of women across our country — those same women by the way who often decide where millions of families go on vacation,” Wasserman Schultz said.
She warned that high-tech and medical science companies won’t want to relocate in Florida if it becomes “a state where women employees must live episodes of Handmaid’s Tale every day.” The novel and TV series depicts a world in which women are stripped of their rights and are subjected to child-bearing slavery.
Information from the News Service of Florida and the Orlando Sentinel was included in this report.