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Florida emerges as key battleground in state-by-state abortion fight

Activists on both sides will be watching DeSantis as election nears

Abortion rights advocates at a rally at Five Points Park in Sarasota, Fla., on June 24, 2022. (Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision is expected to make Florida an epicenter of the state-by-state fight over the issue in the coming months, raising the stakes for abortion rights advocates in the November election and complicating Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) efforts to manage both his statewide and national political fortunes.

Within hours of the court’s decision, access to abortion emerged as a major fault line in America’s divisive cultural battles. Thirteen conservative states with “trigger bans” will outlaw abortion within 30 days — and the procedure could soon be prohibited in several others. Lawmakers in heavily Democratic northern and western states are promising to become safe havens for women who want an abortion but are banned from receiving one at home.

But in Florida, where residents in a half-dozen relatively liberal urban counties are continually locked in political duels with the conservatives who dominate much of the rest of the state, the debate over abortion rights is just getting started. It’s a matter that will potentially have far-reaching consequences for millions of women in the South. The Sunshine State’s new ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy could emerge as one of the more flexible in the region after trigger laws and other unenforced abortion laws now before the courts are likely go into effect.

“This is a place we have to defend and protect, because this is a place where people come to receive services,” said state Sen. Lauren Book (D), the Senate minority leader. “They have nibbled around the edges for a long time … but now it’s not hyperbolic to say this is a very scary time for women in our state.”

How accessible abortion will remain in Florida could hinge on how DeSantis plays his competing political ambitions and the winds of the November election. Some Florida antiabortion activists say they expect DeSantis, who is widely mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2024, to push for additional restrictions or an outright ban on the procedure — a nod to his core base here and primary voters nationwide. But he could still face a competitive reelection for governor this fall in a state where he also needs to appeal to more moderate voices.

DeSantis describes himself as an abortion opponent, but he rarely talks about the issue publicly.

When a reporter asked Thursday how he would respond if Roe v. Wade was overturned, the governor ignored the question and spoke about unrelated topics. On Friday, DeSantis released a statement saying the “prayers of millions have been answered” by the Supreme Court decision. But the statement provided few clues about whether DeSantis plans try to further restrict access to abortion in Florida.

Anthony Verdugo, chair of the Christian Family Coalition of Florida, said he expects conservative voters both in Florida and nationally to understand that DeSantis may not be able to deliver everything that antiabortion advocates are seeking.

“The governor is going to move forward in a manner that best reflects the wishes of the people of the state,” Verdugo said. “And things may be different in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia than it is in Florida, so I expect there is going to be a very pragmatic and practical approach.”

This year, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature pushed through legislation to ban abortion after 15 weeks of a pregnancy, which does not include exceptions for rape or incest. The law is slated to take effect July 1, but a state judge in Tallahassee is considering a lawsuit from abortion rights advocates seeking to block the measure.

The state has 55 licensed abortion clinics, and 80,000 abortions were performed in the last year. Recent statewide surveys indicate a strong majority is opposed to further restricting access.

Andrew Shirvell, director of the antiabortion group Florida Voice for the Unborn, said he has received assurances from “high-level members of Governor DeSantis’s staff” that the governor will call state legislators in for a special session on abortion access as early as mid-November, just after the midterm elections. The timing would mean DeSantis could still try to avoid taking a firm stand on the issue during his reelection campaign.

“Everything is subject to change, and the ball is in his court, but I am very confident based on discussions I have had that the governor is completely onboard with this,” Shirvell said.

Other Florida abortion rights opponents, however, remain skeptical that DeSantis will force the legislature to consider additional restrictions before the start of the 2023 legislative session in March.

John Stemberger, executive director of Florida Family Action, said he doubts DeSantis will call legislators into session before the regular session begins in the spring. He expects conservative legislators to file legislation for either a complete ban on abortion or a “heartbeat bill” that would ban the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy the latter of which he said is most likely to be embraced by GOP legislators.

“There is definitely going to be a bill to come up. No question about it,” said Stemberger, who added that he expects DeSantis will use his power as governor to nudge the legislature into acting. “But I think the one that has been talked about the most is the heartbeat bill.”

Besides DeSantis’s reelection bid, voters will decide the makeup of the Florida House and Senate in November. Republicans currently hold a 23-to-16 member majority in the Senate and a 76-to-42 majority in the House of Representatives.

Although Republicans remain favored to retain both the governor’s office and their legislative majorities, Democrats say the Supreme Court ruling has boosted their chances to make state elections more competitive this year.

Last month, after the Supreme Court’s draft opinion leaked to a media outlet, thousands of abortion rights advocates converged for demonstrations in cities across Florida. Demonstrations also broke out in several Florida cities on Friday night.

“People are fired up about bringing pro-choice women, pro-choice Democrats back to Tallahassee because we are now the front line,” Book, the minority leader, said.

But veteran Florida political analyst Susan MacManus said recently that she is not sure whether the abortion issue alone will be enough to overcome recent GOP gains in the state.

“There is anger and the issue is a big driver for older women, but you just have to wonder how many single-issue voters there really are,” said MacManus, who noted that Florida women supported President Biden over former president Donald Trump in 2020 by a margin of just three percentage points, according to exit polls. “So Democrats are banking everything on abortion, but I am just not sure it will be enough.”

Yet even if Democrats fail to win substantial gains in the legislature, activists say they still are not sure if incoming Senate leaders will want to go further than Florida’s existing 15-week ban.

State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Republican who represents the Naples area, is slated to be the next Senate president if the GOP retains its majority in that chamber. Although publicly opposed to abortion, Book said Passidomo in the past has been hesitant to embrace the most far-reaching versions of antiabortion legislation.

“The incoming Senate president and I have had many, many, many conversations about this issue,” Book said. “She knows it is important to me, and certainly we don’t agree on life versus choice, but I think we both agree there should be exemptions for life, incest and human trafficking because it is just human decency.”

Passidomo declined a request to be interviewed. But in a statement, Passidomo reiterated that she is “pro-life.”

“The Floridians I speak with on a daily basis overwhelmingly support the steps our Legislature has taken to protect unborn life, promote adoption, and support parents who chose life,” Passidomo said.

In the Florida House, at least one Republican who supported the 15-week abortion ban now says he won’t support attempts to enact even broader restrictions. Chip LaMarca, who represents parts of heavily Democratic Broward County, voted for the 15-week ban but said in an interview that he will not support legislation to further restrict access.

“It should be rare and exceptional,” he said of abortion. “But I believe someone should be able to make that choice up to 15 weeks.”

But in the coming weeks, activists on both sides of the abortion debate will most closely be watching DeSantis, who has a fairly limited number of close advisers and often doesn’t foreshadow his political or legislative moves.

Most analysts agree DeSantis probably does not want this issue to dominate the headlines in Florida in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election.

In Florida, however, newly elected state legislators are seated just a few weeks after the election. Shirvell said that is why he has received assurances from the governor’s office that a special session on abortion issues could come as early as late November.

“I think he realizes, if he is going to win the Republican primary [for president], whether in 2024 or 2028, he has to be leading on pro-life issues,” said Shirvell, adding that GOP primary voters may be comparing DeSantis to another possible GOP presidential contender, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “Abbott will be able stand up in a primary and list all of the things that he did for the unborn in his state, and DeSantis would kind of have to pedal back to excuses.”

Book said DeSantis’s governing approach so far does not leave her comforted that the governor will shy away from yet another fight over abortion rights.

“With the House, Senate and the governor all controlled by the Republicans, they will do what they want because they can,” Book said.

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