Florida Survived 2019 Attacks on Abortion Access. What About 2020?

Florida legislators have introduced more than 50 anti-choice measures over the past six years. Changes to the state's supreme court mean some of those bills could survive legal challenges.

[Photo: Florida Governor Ron DiSantis looks on during a press conference.]
After promising on the campaign trail to sign legislation limiting access to abortion, DeSantis immediately appointed three conservative justices to the state supreme court, radically reshaping it into a threat to the future of reproductive rights in our state. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Unlike Republican-majority legislatures in neighboring states and across the country, Florida lawmakers did not pass a single restriction on abortion rights in 2019. Legislators who support reproductive freedom joined with advocates to mount an unprecedented level of opposition to defeat several bills, including an extreme six-week abortion ban.

It will take a similar effort to defend reproductive rights in 2020.

Florida lawmakers, who have proposed more than 50 attacks on reproductive rights over the past six years, have been increasingly hostile to abortion rights. Things only got worse with the inauguration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in January. After promising on the campaign trail to sign legislation limiting access to abortion, DeSantis immediately appointed three conservative justices to the state supreme court, radically reshaping it into a threat to the future of reproductive rights in our state.

With the state’s supreme court now tilted further to the right, lawmakers opposed to abortion rights are focused on challenging previous judicial rulings protecting Floridians’ constitutional right to privacy. Florida Republicans are prepared to push a forced parental consent law, in hopes that the new conservative justices on the Florida Supreme Court will reinterpret the state’s strong privacy protections to no longer pertain to abortion.

The critical importance of maintaining abortion rights in Florida is heightened by the draconian abortion bans passed in 2019 by legislators in neighboring states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Florida may one day be the only place in the Southeast where abortion can still be accessed safely and legally. That is, if we can continue to hold the line.

The day before the start of the 2019 legislative session, the Floridians for Reproductive Freedom coalition— which includes civil liberties and health care advocacy groups —launched the largest abortion rights visibility campaign in Florida history.

Our plan was to capture the attention of state lawmakers making their annual trek to Tallahassee. Our coalition blanketed the state with 24 strategically placed billboards along major highways and in the capital, using the message, “Abortion is Health Care.”

The billboard campaign was bolstered by a series of statewide digital ads and outreach on college campuses across the state, along with a grassroots push throughout the legislative session to inundate lawmakers with calls, emails, and letters opposing further restrictions to abortion access.

Before the legislative session got underway, Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Miami Lakes) created a firestorm of controversy by referring to women as “host bodies,” exposing anti-abortion lawmakers’ goal of stripping people of their bodily autonomy. Later, as a committee prepared to vote on the forced parental consent legislation—which would make it illegal to provide abortion care to a minor without written consent from a parent or legal guardian—activists lined the halls so that lawmakers had to walk through a “gauntlet of accountability” before casting their vote.

Another key moment happened in March, when activists led by Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) and Sen. Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach) mounted a protest after the sponsor of the unconstitutional six-week ban, state Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), held a press conference. This highlighted our coalition’s message about the unconstitutionality of the bill and the threat it posed to the strong privacy protections in the Florida Constitution.

Despite the coordinated strategy by anti-abortion activists that succeeded in several states, Florida’s near-total abortion ban failed to get a single committee hearing. Had it passed, the ban undoubtedly would have been challenged as unconstitutional.

This ban would have outlawed abortion at around six weeks’ gestation, before many even know they are pregnant.

Although these bans have failed to take effect across the country, the anti-abortion movement won’t stop trying to chip away at our reproductive rights. Extremist legislators in Florida have already introduced legislation for 2020, including another near-total abortion ban, HB 271, that attempts to criminalize doctors who provide abortion care. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Mike Hill (R-Pensacola), said, “As plain as day, God spoke” to him and asked him to remove the exceptions for rape, incest, medical emergencies, and human trafficking included in last year’s proposal.

Federal courts have already reaffirmed Roe v. Wade and struck down similar abortion bans numerous times. In October, a U.S. District Court judge blocked Georgia Republicans’ near-total ban, stating, “Under no circumstances whatsoever may a state prohibit or ban abortions at any point prior to viability.” Four weeks later, another district judge blocked Alabama’s abortion ban, writing that it “contravenes clear Supreme Court precedent.”

Another ominous bill resurrected for Florida’s 2020 legislative session is HB 265, the house’s forced parental consent measure, which passed its only committee stop in a party-line vote on October 22. That means the bill is ready for a floor vote in the GOP-controlled House when the full legislative session starts in January. Republicans in the state senate last week pushed the companion bill through the senate committee on health policy.

Florida law already requires parents to be notified when a minor seeks abortion care. And the small fraction of Florida youth who do not voluntarily consult a parent often have good reason. Many come from families where such an announcement would exacerbate an already volatile or dysfunctional situation. Others fear they would be physically abused because their parents had beaten them before. That’s why leading health and medical professionals oppose these laws.

Baxley, speaking at a Christian Family Coalition event in August, let slip that the real motivation behind the forced parental consent bill is to trigger a challenge to the privacy clause in Florida’s state constitution, ultimately opening the floodgates to further restrict abortion access in Florida.

“We have some new court members, we need another look at what the privacy clause means …in a way that could open the door for many other accomplishments that save lives,” Baxley said.

Public polling shows how out of step these politicians are with their constituents. Seventy-five percent of Floridians agree that women should have the ability to decide whether to have an abortion with her doctor without the government interfering, according to a survey commissioned in 2017. And 77 percent of respondents to a recent national Marist poll do not want Roe v. Wade overturned. This includes a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

Floridians are ready to keep fighting to halt restrictive anti-abortion laws, but we can’t stop there. Ultimately, Florida legislators needs to enact laws that expand and protect abortion rights, like the measures passed recently by Democratic lawmakers in New York and Illinois. These are laws that respect and empower pregnant people–and that means ensuring access to respectful, quality, affordable reproductive health care, including abortion care.