THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 27, 2011 --
The Florida House is ready Wednesday to approve a sweeping series of abortion restrictions, including a requirement that women undergo ultrasounds before they can terminate pregnancies.
House members took up five bills Tuesday that target issues such as insurance coverage for abortions, teen abortions, state funding of abortions and clinic ownership. A sixth bill would change how money is used from sales of the “Choose Life” license plate.
Republicans rejected a string of Democratic amendments during a four-hour debate. Democrats --- who earlier sent out news releases describing the bills as “anti-women” and “anti-female” --- repeatedly questioned the abortion focus when many voters are concerned about issues such as jobs and the economy.
“Would this legislation result in any creation of jobs?” Rep. Charles Chestnut, D-Gainesville, asked at one point.
But Rep. Rachel Burgin, a Riverview Republican who sponsored one of the bills, said “you cannot put an economic study on life.’’
“I believe the health of women and health of families is really important,’’ she said.
With Republicans controlling the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature for the past dozen years, debates about abortion bills have been common. But the volume of bills moving forward this year has been unusual.
The Senate could take up two abortion bills on the floor Wednesday, and others appear to have a chance at passing before the legislative session ends May 6.
Here are summaries of the House bills that are poised for votes as early as Wednesday:
--- HB 1127: This measure would require ultrasounds before women can have first-trimester abortions, a requirement that already is in place for later-term abortions. It would largely reverse former Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto of a similar bill last year.
Women would have to sign forms stating they do not want to see the fetal images or hear descriptions. Supporters said Tuesday that many clinics already perform ultrasounds before abortions, but critics argued it could be a financial burden for some women.
“Will the patient be forced to pay for an ultrasound that she does not wish to be performed?’’ asked House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West.
But Rep. Paige Kreegel, a Punta Gorda Republican who is a physician, said good doctors already are performing ultrasounds.
“All we’re doing with this bill is mandating the good practice of medicine,’’ Kreegel said.
--- HB 97: This proposal is designed to prevent abortion coverage in policies that will be sold through a state health-insurance exchange, which is required in 2014 as part of last year’s federal health overhaul.
Such exchanges will create new marketplaces for individuals and small businesses to buy health insurance, with low-income people able to get federal subsidies.
Tax dollars could not be used to pay for abortions, but the federal law will allow people to pay separately for abortion coverage. The House bill would block such coverage from being available in the Florida exchange.
--- House Joint Resolution 1179: This proposed constitutional amendment would go on the 2012 ballot and, in part, make clear that public funds could not be used to pay for abortions --- including through health-insurance coverage.
Federal law, known as the “Hyde Amendment,’’ already bars public funding of abortions through programs such as Medicaid. But resolution sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said that law is not part of the Florida Constitution.
The proposed resolution, however, would go further because it also would prevent the Florida Constitution from being interpreted more broadly than the U.S. Constitution when it comes to abortion issues. That is important because a privacy clause in the Florida Constitution has been successfully used in the past to challenge abortion restrictions.
--- HB 1247: This measure would change a law that requires parents to be notified before minors can get abortions. It would tighten restrictions on minors who seek judicial approval to have abortions without their parents being notified.
As an example, the bill would require minors to go before judges in the same judicial circuits where they live. That would be more restrictive than the current requirement, which allows minors to go before judges in the appellate-districts where they live --- a far-larger number of courts in some regions of the state.
Abortion-rights advocates have long argued that some teens need the judicial-waiver process because they could be endangered if parents find out they are pregnant or seeking abortions. Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, questioned Tuesday whether minors’ anonymity could be threatened if they have to go to courthouses in the circuit where they live.
But bill sponsor Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the current process allows minors to be driven up to six hours from their homes to go before judges.
--- HB 1397: This measure includes a series of changes to abortion laws, including trying to prevent abortions after fetuses have reached “viability.’’
But perhaps the most-controversial part of the bill would require that doctors or groups of doctors own and operate any new clinics after Oct. 1, 2011. The requirement would not apply to currently operating clinics.
Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, said that could be a problem because physicians often need investors to finance clinics. But Burgin, the bill sponsor, said “this is not a job for entrepreneurs.’’
--- HB 501: This proposal would funnel money collected through sales of the “Choose Life” license plate to a non-profit group called Choose Life, Inc.
The money is supposed to go to programs that help pregnant women who are willing to put babies up for adoption. Under current law, the money goes to counties, which then distribute it to adoption-related programs.
Baxley, the bill sponsor, said the state needs a more “uniform” process for distributing the money, which Choose Life, Inc., would provide. But opponents questioned whether the bill includes enough safeguards to make sure the non-profit uses the money appropriately.