TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (MCT) — The Florida House on Wednesday mounted what critics called a two-pronged assault on abortion rights, passing legislation that would require pregnant women to undergo ultrasound exams before getting an abortion and effectively defining life at conception for criminal prosecutions.
Any woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy would be required to pay for an ultrasound procedure — and view the results unless she signs a waiver — before having the abortion, under a controversial bill passed by the House largely along party lines.
The Republican-led chamber also endorsed a "fetal homicide" bill that would create a separate murder charge for anyone who caused a pregnancy to be terminated through an act of violence against a pregnant woman. It defines an "unborn child" as a fetus at any stage of development, beginning at conception.
"I can't imagine any man having a surgical procedure without prior tests," said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Panama City, said during debate over the ultrasound bill. "As a woman, as a mother, I ask you to support this bill, not to invade privacy, but to ensure that all women are offered safe health care."
The House measures, though, face an unknown future in the Senate, which in past years has killed similar anti-abortion measures and hasn't yet set aside time to debate the issue this year. Gov. Charlie Crist, whose signature would be required for the bills to become law, has been silent on the matter.
Democrats argued the abortion measures were little more than a government invasion into a private health matter.
"This is not about protecting the rights of women," said Rep. Joyce Cusack, D-DeLand. "This is about eroding the rights of women. And I am so disappointed we would spend this kind of time on something that is really none of our business."
The House's ultrasound requirement, HB 257, would require pregnant women to pay for the scans as part of their abortion procedures. Costs for the tests can range widely, but are often a few hundred dollars, according to expert testimony.
Ultrasound scans already are required for women seeking abortions in their second- and third-trimesters; the bill expands the requirement to include early-term pregnancies.
The ultrasound mandate is meant to warn pregnant woman, "are you sure you want to do that?" said House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, of Miami Beach. "Just to constantly second-guess and challenge a woman who makes what I imagine is one of the hardest and most difficult decisions a person has to make. In that sense, it's an offensive bill."
Republicans, though, said an ultrasound is necessary for a woman to make a good decision about whether to have an abortion. Supporters read letters from women who said they regretted their decision to end their pregnancies and wished they'd seen images of their fetuses.
The emotionally charged debate prompted House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, to warn groups of grade-school kids watching from the gallery of the adult content.
The ultrasound bill passed on a 70-45 vote and now goes to the Senate, where it has yet to get a committee hearing. However, the anti-abortion effort has a powerful ally in Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, Fla., who has sponsored a companion bill and said Wednesday he assumes it will get a floor vote before the session adjourns May 2.
Last year, the House passed a bill containing the ultrasound requirement, but it died in the Senate.
Women whose pregnancies are the result of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking would be exempt from the ultrasound requirement.
If the "fetal homicide" bill passes the Senate and becomes law, anyone who causes a pregnancy to be terminated by assaulting or killing a woman could be prosecuted for murdering the "unborn child" — even if they didn't know the woman was pregnant.
The bill also would apply to drunk drivers, who could be charged with vehicular homicide for causing a pregnancy to be terminated in a car accident.
Under current law, a separate murder charge only applies if the fetus is considered viable, which is defined as "capable of meaningful life outside the womb through standard medical measures." That viable fetus standard is changed to "unborn child" at any stage of development.
"It elevates a fetus and an egg, frankly, to the status of an adult person," said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of Florida's Planned Parenthood affiliates. "The purpose of this bill is to create tension with Roe v. Wade. It's a chipping-away strategy we've seen for years now."
The bill, HB 513, mirrors a federal law Congress passed in 2004 dubbed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. That law, though, only applies to crimes prosecuted in federal court. Numerous states already define life at conception for the purpose of prosecuting violence against pregnant women.
Bill sponsor Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach, Fla., said the fetal homicide bill is an attempt to "curb crime and save lives."
Democrats — a handful of whom voted for the bill, which passed 80-36 — offered little debate against the idea.
(Sun-Sentinel Tallahassee Bureau Chief Linda Kleindienst contributed to this report.)