Democratic lawmakers stood by powerless Wednesday as Senate Republicans took their first steps toward banning abortion in Florida after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The Senate Health Policy Committee OK’d the measure along a party-line vote, marking the proposal’s first committee-level passage. Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel is the bill sponsor.
Within a packed committee room, Republican lawmakers advanced the bill (SB 146), which would implement some of the strictest abortion limitations in the nation.
Led by Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, Democratic lawmakers and activists decried the measure as cruel and harmful to poor and minority women, among other objections.
“This is a ban. This is dangerous,” Book said, a sexual assault survivor. “This will harm women and is taking away our choice and our ability to have autonomy over our bodies.”
The proposal is undoubtedly among the most contentious of the 2022 Legislative Session. It would ban abortion after 15 weeks and provide no exceptions for rape or incest.
Outnumbered Democrats united early around a sole amendment to the bill: a provision that would allow abortion if a pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or human trafficking. The amendment, however, failed. Book conceded the defeat deflated members of the caucus.
“I’m not sure that we’re going to get to a place where they agree,” she said of legislative leaders. “But that doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to try.”
Speaking to press afterward, Stargel characterized herself as inflexible on the issue. She insisted she is “truly” trying to protect victims of human trafficking.
“If we’re going to be serious about that conversation of human trafficking, we don’t want to allow people to destroy the evidence of what has happened,” Stargel said. Her remarks came after several speakers shared emotional stories of rape and incest before the committee.
In an unusual move, Book and Senate Democrats opted to forgo debate and allow doctors in attendance to speak and take questions on the possible harms of a 15-week abortion ban.
Lawmakers throughout the meeting — none of whom are doctors — debated often over medical terms and conflicting abortion research.
“It was really important to us that we actually be led by doctors and providers to give us that information,” Book explained.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is among the dozens of attendees who addressed committee members and urged Republicans to block the bill.
A Democratic gubernatorial candidate and outspoken critic of Gov. Ron DeSantis, she encouraged Republicans to buck DeSantis’ wishes and serve the will of their constituents.
“I know you all personally,” Fried said. “Some of you I’ve known for 20-plus years. I know this is not something that you want to do. I know this is something that is not a priority of you, and you were forced into the situation today.”
Florida law currently prohibits abortions during the third trimester — up to 24 weeks — with certain medical exceptions.
Many Republican-led states, though, are challenging abortion rights nationwide. In October, Texas enacted one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation, making the procedure illegal after six weeks. West Virginia, meanwhile, introduced legislation Tuesday to impose a 15-week abortion ban.
“This bill safeguards innocent, unborn children with beating hearts, who can move, taste, see, feel pain, and whose lives should be protected under the laws of this state,” Stargel said.
By design, the 15-week proposal tests the limits of Roe v. Wade. It is similar to a Mississippi law currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stargel has repeatedly characterized the looming judgment as an “opportunity” she is seeking to capitalize on. A Supreme Court ruling is expected in June.
“This has been a passion of mine forever,” Stargel said of her abortion proposal.
The measure will appear next before the Senate Appropriations Committee. It further contains provisions that would loop pregnant women into a tobacco education program, among other provisions.
It also would create an infant mortality review process, bolster infant mortality reduction initiatives, and enhance Florida’s abortion reporting requirements to include instances of human trafficking.
Republican Reps. Erin Grall and Jenna Persons-Mulicka are sponsoring the companion bill (HB 5).