Bills Would Prohibit Florida Abortions After Fetal Heartbeat

What to Know

  • Florida's bill sponsors say they are buoyed by more conservative faces on both the state and federal high courts.

A pair of controversial bills introduced in the Florida Legislature aim to ban women from attaining an abortion when a fetus' heartbeat is detected.

Similar legislation in other states have been stymied by governors, statehouses and the courts. But Florida's bill sponsors say they are buoyed by more conservative faces on both the state and federal high courts.

"Being a constitutionalist, I believe that we have a very good chance of it passing a court challenge up to the Florida Supreme Court," said Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, sponsor of the House bill.

Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, is pushing a companion bill in the Senate.

Current Florida law prohibits third trimester abortions, except in cases of medical necessity.

The "heartbeat bill," as it is commonly known, seeks to ban abortions at the time when a fetus' heartbeat can be detected with a vaginal ultrasound. That can be as early as 5 1/2 to 6 weeks after gestation, before many women even know they are pregnant. Violating the proposed ban would be a third-degree felony.

As it is written, the proposed legislation makes no exceptions for survivors of rape or incest.

The hurdle the Florida bill faces in becoming law is this: A court would have to overturn a precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade and other cases that the state cannot impose an "undue burden" on a woman seeking an abortion before fetal viability, which generally occurs between 24 and 26 weeks.

That's why the bill is not likely to stick, said Florida State University Law Professor Mary Ziegler, who specializes in reproductive law and has authored books on the legal history of abortion.

"Even though both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court are more conservative, it would be kind of a complete 180 to uphold a law like this," she said.

"I think that we can expect in Florida to have decisions at the state and federal level scaling back on abortion rights," she said, "but I would be surprised if it went as quickly as the sponsors of this bill seem to think it will."

Currently, 14 states, including Florida, have proposed legislation that seeks to ban abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat.

"The Florida bill is one of several that have been filed across the country that are designed to give the Supreme Court an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade," Ziegler said.

Baxley said he sponsored the Florida bill because he believes the political climate is changing.

"As this conversation sparked up across the country and a number of states were considering this issue, and how we deal with it, there was a pattern," he said. "The pattern was the heartbeat."

Anti-abortionists often point to a heartbeat to symbolize the life of the fetus.

That is not a concept accepted by the medical community, said Stephen Snow, the legislative chairman of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology District 12, which represents Florida.

"Scientists believe that if a fetus can't survive outside the womb, really the mother has to make decisions about continuing the pregnancy," he said.

The Florida bills, Snow said, substitute the term "unborn human being" for a fetus in an attempt to create vague wording that is left to interpretation.

"This bill is designed to create hurdles to prevent a legal medical procedure being performed in Florida," he said.

Public opinion on abortion remains divided.

In Florida, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 56 percent of adults supported legal abortion in all or most cases, a higher number than in neighboring Southern states.

"Florida is kind of a purple state when it comes to abortion," said Ziegler, the law professor. "It's not particularly progressive or particularly conservative. It sort of sits in the middle."

The Pew poll surveyed 2,020 adults in Florida through telephone interviews. The survey hasa margin of error of +/- 2.5 percentage points.

Ziegler said these numbers indicate a fetal heartbeat abortion ban may not be supported in Florida, regardless of more conservative courts that may be willing to chip away at legal precedent.

"The Pew poll would suggest that Florida voters are not particularly invested in far reaching abortion restrictions, even if they're not particularly invested in sweeping abortion rights either."

As of May 2018, Florida had placed a number of restrictions on abortions. They are only covered under the Affordable Care Act if the woman's life is endangered, or in cases of rape or incest. The parent of a minor must be notified before an abortion is provided. Public funding for abortions is only available in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest.

And regardless of when a woman seeks an abortion, she must undergo an ultrasound first, and the provider must offer her the option to view the image.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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