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15-week abortion limit headed to DeSantis

Demonstrators chant slogans during a rally in support of abortion rights on May 23, 2019, in Miami.
Lynne Sladky
AP file
Demonstrators chant slogans during a rally in support of abortion rights on May 23, 2019, in Miami.

Florida doctors could soon be prohibited from performing abortions past 15 weeks of pregnancy, after the Republican-controlled Senate approved a bill Thursday night that is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

Senators approved the measure (HB 5) in a 23-15 party-line vote that was the culmination of hours of tense debate over two days. Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, did not vote on the bill, while one Senate seat is vacant.

The House passed the bill last month in a 78-39 vote along almost straight party lines. DeSantis confirmed Friday that he will sign the legislation.

“I think the protections are warranted, and I think that we’ll be able to sign that in short order,” DeSantis said during an appearance in Jacksonville.

Senate bill sponsor Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, fought back tears as she delivered closing remarks and described past efforts to strengthen a law that required parents to be notified before minors could have abortions.

“I never dreamed I’d be standing here today, not just giving parental notice, but actually being able to save the life of babies that are past 15 weeks of gestation. God is so good,” Stargel said.

The bill, which would take effect July 1 if signed by DeSantis, closely resembles a Mississippi law that is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case could determine whether the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights is scaled back or overturned.

Roe vs. Wade generally has allowed women to have abortions until about 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, told reporters he thinks the bill would “pass the muster” of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“When you think about being pro-life, we are giving 15 weeks as a state. The U.S. Supreme Court, I believe, and it hasn’t yet, but I believe they will uphold that. And so there are all options on the table until 15 weeks. And … under certain circumstances, after 15 weeks there’s still options,” Simpson said.

Democrats argued women’s decisions to have abortions are intimately personal and are frequently made under difficult circumstances.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, raised concerns about the consequences of removing the choice to have abortions after 15 weeks.

“I think a big issue for us is, when we tell a woman she has to carry a baby to term, she is giving up so much — of her body, of her mind, in those last two trimesters. She could have to lose her job or not get paid … while she’s out. She has to take time off of her job after she gives birth. She could be in school and have to drop out or lose a semester. There’s a lot of shame involved if she’s an unwed mother. It’s the mom’s life that I guess we’re so focused on as opposed to, as we would call, the fetus,” Polsky said.

The measure would make an exception to the 15-week restriction for instances of a “fatal fetal abnormality,” if two physicians certify that such an abnormality exists.

The bill defines such abnormalities as a terminal condition that, regardless of medical treatment, is incompatible with survival outside the womb. The two-doctor requirement drew objections from Democrats who criticized it as “unnecessary.”

The bill does not include an exception for victims of rape or incest. Senators on Wednesday rejected a proposed change to create an exception for pregnancies that are the result of rape, incest or human trafficking.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who proposed the change, said it would have made the bill “a little less draconian for women.” She slammed the bill as an “all-out assault on women’s rights.”

But Republican senators defended the bill as an effort to save lives.

Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, cited his Catholic faith in saying that “life begins at conception” and that abortion is his “fundamental and defining issue” as a lawmaker.

“We’ve heard a lot of what-ifs, and what if this scenario, and what if this situation. Here’s what I know, there’s no what-ifs after an abortion,” Burgess said. “That’s the end of the line. A life is ended, and there’s no second chance or reset.”

Burgess also said the vast majority of abortions in Florida are performed before 15 weeks of pregnancy.

But Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, argued that the 15-week limit would have a broad impact.

“This is not a moderate proposal. We’re talking about taking away a woman’s right to choose, from 24 weeks to 15 weeks. That’s about two months. This is a lot of very significant change in the law. And let’s talk about who it’s going to affect. So, we’ve heard there’s about 4,500 women per year in Florida who have their abortions between weeks 15 and 24,” Berman said.