The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fla. Republicans ditch Texas-style abortion law for what they call a ‘generous’ 15-week ban, drawing criticism from all sides

The approach, seen as an emerging GOP strategy to prepare voters for a post-Roe world, has prompted rare denunciations from the right of Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Sen. Kelli Stargel (R), left, talks with the news media Feb. 2 in Tallahassee about her bill to ban abortion in the state after 15 weeks of pregnancy. (Colin Hackley for The Washington Post)
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TALLAHASSEE — It took just one day after Texas enacted its controversial “heartbeat bill,” banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, for a top Florida Republican to endorse passing the same law in his state — with the leader of the state Senate declaring that a similar measure was “something we’re already working on.”

But by the time the measure was introduced in September, drawing national headlines as the first Texas copycat ban to emerge nationwide, Florida GOP leaders effectively shrugged it off.

Even Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rising hero on the right for his unapologetic opposition to coronavirus restrictions, said he hadn’t read enough about the Texas ban to comment. His staff went further. Pointing to the novel enforcement mechanism that allowed citizen watchdogs to sue anyone involved in facilitating abortion access after the legal limit, they said DeSantis “didn’t want to turn private citizens against each other.”

Four months later, Florida Republicans have coalesced around a bill they have come to describe as “very reasonable” and “generous” — a 15-week ban modeled after the Mississippi law in the U.S. Supreme Court case that will determine the future of Roe v. Wade. It’s an approach, they say, that would prevent only a fraction of the more than 70,000 abortions performed in Florida each year, the vast majority of which take place in the first trimester.

“We’re not banning anything. We’re not being mean,” said state Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Republican from central Florida and a chief sponsor of the Mississippi-style bill that was approved by a committee last week and is expected to win easy passage before the legislative session ends in March. “We’re not taking away a woman’s opportunity.”

A Supreme Court review of a Mississippi abortion law could pave the way for many other state laws that restrict or ban the procedure. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The momentum behind the 15-week ban in Florida offers a glimpse into what activists on both sides say is an emerging strategy in some GOP-led legislatures to acclimate voters to a post-Roe world. The objective, these activists say, is to portray the Mississippi-style ban as a sensible compromise — even though a 15-week ban represents a dramatic rollback of the standard established by Roe, which protects the right to abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb, around 22 to 24 weeks. Fifteen-week bans have been introduced recently in West Virginia and Arizona, and just like in Florida, both are moving swiftly through the legislature, even as Texas-style laws in other states have stalled.

Abortion rights groups are sounding the alarm about the potential impact of Florida’s 15-week ban, which as drafted would have no exception for rape or incest. The state’s current law allowing abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy is among the most lenient in the Southeast, making it a reliable access point in the region.

“If they drop a bill so extreme and so crazy that it dominates the news for months, when they drop a 15-week ban, it does not look as extreme,” said Annie Filkowski, policy director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “It looks like a compromise.”

The approach has introduced a surprising dynamic for Florida Republicans, who have long dominated the state Capitol, prompting rare denunciations of DeSantis from some corners of the party base.

One prominent antiabortion lobbyist, Andrew Shirvell, executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, has publicly called on DeSantis to join fellow GOP Govs. Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota and Greg Abbott of Texas to back stricter bans. To date, the strongest abortion law signed by DeSantis, who is up for reelection this year and widely seen as a potential presidential candidate, is a 2020 measure requiring parental consent.

“We’ve had pro-life majorities in our legislature for close to 30 years and a Republican governor for decades. There is really little excuse for this,” Shirvell said. “If you believe that abortion is murder, then you need to act like it.”

DeSantis’s office did not respond to a request for comment. At a news conference on Jan. 12, he said he was “supportive” of a 15-week ban.

“I think that’s very reasonable, and I think that’s very consistent with, you know, being supportive of protecting life,” he said.

In the Florida House, Republican Rep. Dana Trabulsy said 15 weeks was a “long time.”

“Because I believe life begins at conception, that’s, that’s — generous,” she said.

Republican-led states rush to pass antiabortion bills before Supreme Court rules on Roe

Experts say abortion is a political wild card in Florida. There is no recent comprehensive statewide polling on the issue, said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who specializes in abortion.

The most comparable state-by-state polling on abortion, from 2014, found that 39 percent of Floridians believed abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, compared with 50 percent of Texans that same year.

“The data suggests that Florida is not as antiabortion as many red states, so Florida doesn’t have the luxury of having the matter theoretically decided,” said Ziegler.

Florida has maintained relatively relaxed abortion laws because of a 1980 privacy law interpreted by the state Supreme Court to protect the right to abortion. Most notably, Florida is the only state south of Virginia and east of New Mexico that does not require patients to schedule an initial consultation at least 24 hours before their procedure, allowing out-of-state patients to access abortion care without staying overnight.

If the Florida bill takes effect, patients seeking abortions after 15 weeks would probably have to travel to North Carolina.

Abortion is legal until a fetus is viable. Will the Supreme Court change that standard?

GOP leaders in Florida say the Texas-style ban was never seriously considered.

When the Texas-style bill was introduced in September, the sponsor, a freshman Republican, was “cowboying it on his own,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, an antiabortion lobbying group that is in communication with the Republican leadership and the governor’s office on abortion issues.

“We never expected it to go anywhere,” Stemberger added.

Stargel, the senator behind the 15-week ban, said she “knew we could never get that bill passed.” While she would have loved to ban abortion at an earlier point in pregnancy, she said, the Florida public “is not there yet.”

State Rep. Webster Barnaby (R), who introduced Florida’s version of the Texas law in September, said he consulted with Republican leadership only after he filed his bill. He filed his legislation “on the strength of my personal convictions,” he said. After learning more about Florida’s privacy law, and the reasons a Texas-style ban might not work as well in Florida, he said, he decided to back the 15-week ban instead.

“I’m a big boy. I understand politics,” he said. “The French have a saying. They say, ‘C’est la vie.’”

The 15-week limit was a “pragmatic calculation,” said Stemberger, providing the most surefire path to an antiabortion victory.

By mimicking the Mississippi law, he said, Florida Republicans would maximize their chances of passing a law that could get through the courts, which have become significantly more conservative in recent years but are still beholden to the privacy law that has protected abortion rights in the state for more than three decades. Even if the Supreme Court rules narrowly — and upholds the Mississippi law without fully overturning Roe — Florida’s 15-week ban would almost certainly stand.

The bill would have the added benefit of being more politically palatable to moderate voters, Stemberger added. “I think the average person will see this as a reasonable proposal and not extreme,” he said.

The scene last week at Florida’s Capitol, however, showed that not everyone was prepared to accept the measure as a compromise. Abortion rights supporters packed into a Senate committee room, lining up to address the conservative-dominated panel.

Samantha Deans, associate medical director for Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida, shared the story of an 11-year-old girl who came to her clinic after she was raped by a family member. She had just had her first period, Deans said, and her mother didn’t realize she was pregnant until she was 23 weeks along.

“Abortion bans like the one proposed here today are a direct assault on patient autonomy,” she said. “No one should have their most personal decisions controlled by anyone beyond themselves ... especially not by politicians.”

An abortion doctor from Kansas City, Mo., travels across state lines every month to provide care at clinics in the Midwest. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

A new vision to overturn Roe v. Wade

Unlike abortion bans in several other states this legislative cycle, the Florida bill materialized without fanfare, introduced a few hours before the filing deadline, with no news conference to mark its introduction. DeSantis did not talk about the 15-week ban in his opening address to the legislature on Jan. 11, mentioning the legislation only when asked about it by reporters, a choice that angered some on the right.

Advocates on both sides of the issue say they suspect legislators are trying to “slip in” the 15-week ban without attracting too much attention.

“It’s the exact opposite of what’s happened in other states like Texas,” said Shirvell. “They seemed to want it to get the least amount of publicity possible.”

Shirvell accused DeSantis of trying to “have it both ways”: backing an abortion ban to appease the GOP base, but keeping it quiet to avoid alienating moderates.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), one of Florida’s most outspoken opponents of the 15-week ban, thinks Republicans are trying to rush the 15-week ban through the legislature as quickly as possible to put the maximum amount of time between its passage and the election.

“They don’t want to wake up the Democrats,” she said.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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