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Pressure mounts on Florida Republicans as antiabortion activists eye their next battleground state

A demonstrator holds a sign supporting abortion rights during the Women’s March in Miami, on Oct. 2, 2021. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg News)

BRADENTON, Fla. — The Manatee County Commission was considering a plan to explore banning abortions, and Carol Whitmore seemed to be a likely "yes" vote. She is a longtime Republican, serving on a board that is mostly Republican, in a county that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

But when it was her turn to speak during deliberations last month, Whitmore publicly revealed an experience she'd only talked about in private: She had an abortion in 1973, the year Roe v. Wade was decided. She was a teenager then, pregnant from a nonconsensual relationship, and an aunt had given her the $150 needed for the procedure after her parents kicked her out of the house.

“Do I regret it? Yes,” Whitmore said. “Do I still believe women should be pro-choice? Yes.”

Whitmore voted against the plan, but her colleagues approved it in a 4-3 vote.

The commission’s decision was largely symbolic. There are no abortion clinics in Manatee County, and nobody has announced plans to open one. But in considering whether to become a “safe haven for developing children who are inside their mother’s womb,” as the commission worded it in a letter to the state’s attorney general, Manatee County is joining the effort to make Florida the next state to implement an abortion ban.

Last month, a Texas law took effect that allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps a woman get an abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detectable, usually around six weeks gestation. On Wednesday, a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked enforcement of that law in response to a request from the Biden administration. The Texas attorney general’s office plans to appeal.

The path to a ban in Florida could be even bumpier. Like Whitmore, many Republican leaders aren’t sold on a Texas-style law. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) says he is against abortion, but he has been noncommittal on proposed abortion bans in Florida.

Abortion-rights activists in the state are readying their defense. Dozens of abortion rights rallies were held across the state last weekend, one of the largest occurring here in Manatee County, south of Tampa. 

More than 1,000 people marched through the county seat of Bradenton, many traveling from elsewhere in the state.

“We’re ground zero now,” said Bradenton resident Kate Danehy-Samitz, a co-founder of Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida, the pro-abortion-rights group that organized the march.

What to know about the Texas abortion law

The political dynamics in this small Gulf Coast county highlight the predicament DeSantis faces on abortion rights: how to win reelection to the governor’s office in 2022 by appealing to moderate Florida voters, including pro-abortion rights Republicans, while also appealing to the conservative Republican base he would need for a successful presidential run in 2024.

Sarah Parker, a co-organizer of the Bradenton abortion rights rally, said she’s encouraged by the governor’s silence on the issue.

“As for right now, not taking a stand is probably the most important and right thing he’s done as governor,” Parker said.

But supporters of the Texas law say they’re confident that DeSantis will come down on their side and help them win the battle that they’ve been fighting over abortion for decades.

“It’s a very rare moment in our history,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, one of the leading antiabortion organizations in the state. The state has a conservative governor who has appointed three justices to the Florida Supreme Court, he noted, and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to block the Texas law.

“I think we have a governor, and leadership in the Senate and the House, who want to do something significant to protect the unborn,” Stemberger said. “And I think you can even throw in the courts. … I think you have all three branches of government in essence coming to a pro-life conclusion.”

The Manatee County Commission’s vote approved a letter to DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody asking for guidance on how to ban abortions in the county. Whitmore and fellow Republican county commissioner Misty Servia — along with Reggie Bellamy, the lone Democratic commissioner — voted against sending the letter.

People say “if you’re not pro-life, you are not a Republican; and that’s not true,” Whitmore said. “I’ve been a Republican since 1973, and I’ve been pro-choice.”

Antiabortion activist Mark Lee Dickson, one of the architects of the Texas law, was instrumental in getting the “safe haven” proposal to the county commission. Parker and Danehy-Samitz have been documenting Dickson’s influence on the local abortion debate, and county records show that he was emailing with commissioner James Satcher, who proposed the safe-haven effort, at least as far back as July 30 on the subject of “Manatee County Ordinance Outlawing Abortion.”

The commission’s vote puts more pressure on DeSantis to take a stand on the issue. It also follows the playbook that Dickson used in Texas, starting with such ordinances in small towns.

Like DeSantis, Republican leaders in Tallahassee, the state capital, have been slow to embrace Dickson’s push to bring the Texas law to Florida. Incoming state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said she doesn’t want to “cut and paste” the language from Texas.

“I am pro-life, but I am not pro telling on your neighbors,” Passidomo said at a recent speech.

Dickson said Passidomo “should know better.”

“I do not believe Sen. Passidomo understands just how important the private enforcement mechanism is, and I highly encourage her to re-examine the mechanism and the lives which it has saved,” Dickson said.

Biden administration reverses Trump rule barring federally funded family planning clinics from abortion referrals

In Florida, abortions are legal up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy unless life-threatening conditions to the mother are present. Over the years, however, antiabortion lawmakers have successfully layered on requirements such as parental consent and ultrasounds.

Dickson told The Post that he has drafted “safe haven” ordinances for Naples, Fla., and Manatee County that would use private citizens to enforce abortion bans. Naples has not taken action on its proposal yet.

“He’s finding people in Florida he can coerce into doing these ridiculous ordinances that aren’t supported by the public,” said Stephanie Fraim, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “And that’s how you get something like what happened in Manatee County. Commissioner Whitmore shared her story, and that was incredibly brave. … I don’t know how it must have felt for her to bare her soul and then have them look her in the eye and vote to have that right taken away from her.”

Whitmore declined to be interviewed but said in an email that she’d gotten “100% support” from constituents in her conservative district.

Eight days after the vote in Manatee County, Republican state Rep. Webster Barnaby filed a “heartbeat bill” in Tallahassee that is modeled on the Texas law, including a provision calling on citizens, not the state, to enforce it. It also gives the public six years — two years more than the Texas law allows — to sue someone for having or helping a person get an abortion.

DeSantis released a statement on the proposed legislation, saying “like all legislation, we will be monitoring it as it moves through the legislative process in the coming months.”

Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who specializes in abortion issues, said Florida voters are more liberal on abortion rights than are voters in states such as Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. That poses a dilemma for DeSantis, she said.

“Are you going to bet that your base will back you if you pass a ban like that, or are you worried that there’s going to be a backlash if you do something that’s out of step with public opinion in the state?” Ziegler said. “I don’t think that’s an easy choice.”

Ziegler said polling in Florida shows a slim majority of voters favor maintaining access to abortions in the state.

“Gov. DeSantis has long had ambitions beyond the governor’s mansion. He’s reading the room to see how these more sweeping measures will play out,” Ziegler said. “Maybe the Florida GOP is moving in the direction of the GOP in Texas or Alabama, but they’re doing it at greater risk, and I think they’re aware of that.”

Marcela Howell, founder and director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda said the direction Florida goes on abortion rights depends on DeSantis and his political ambitions.

“This really is about the governor trying to make sure another governor, Greg Abbott in Texas, doesn’t get an advantage over him in a presidential primary. If he hopes to run against Abbott and others who will jump into this primary, he’s going to go as far right as he possibly can,” Howell said. “Florida isn’t quite as conservative as Texas, and there may be some serious pushback. Grassroots groups will push back.”

Mac Stipanovich, a longtime GOP operative in Florida who broke with the party over Donald Trump, said DeSantis can safely take a wait-and-see attitude for now. But if the U.S. Supreme Court rules next year in favor of a Mississippi law that could overturn Roe v. Wade, he said DeSantis will be forced to take a stand that could alienate moderate Florida voters.

“Abortion poses a greater danger to Republicans generally, and DeSantis specifically, in 2024 more than 2022,” Stipanovich said. “But if the Mississippi case is decided before DeSantis stands for reelection in 2022, that would introduce a volatility into the entire dynamic that DeSantis just doesn’t need.”