Florida Senate passes 15-week abortion limit, bill now heads to governor's desk

The Florida Senate passed a bill that would prohibit doctors from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, one of the most bitterly disputed issues of the 2022 legislative session.

The House passed the measure last month in a 78-39 vote along almost straight party lines.

Republican senators Wednesday rejected a series of amendments that Democrats proposed during hours of debate.

"These are babies. It’s an individual inside that woman that has a separate DNA, a separate body, a separate person," Senate bill sponsor Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said. "And the question we’re asking ourself is, when does that baby in the womb have the same rights as the mother that’s carrying it with that right to be able to live and to thrive and to grow?"

The bill will go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has indicated he supports a 15-week limit. Lawmakers and other people on both sides of the issue also are closely watching a U.S. Supreme Court case about the constitutionality of Mississippi law that similarly restricts abortions to 15 weeks.

The case is widely seen as a challenge to the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights. Justices on the conservative-dominated Supreme Court heard arguments in December.

Stargel said that the Supreme Court’s weighing of the Mississippi law was a factor in the decision to propose the 15-week restriction, adding that "the baby feels pain at 15 weeks." Roe v. Wade generally has protected abortion rights until about 24 weeks of pregnancy.

In the House and Senate, Democrats have disputed that fetuses can feel pain at 15 weeks. They also have argued that the bill is unconstitutional, especially in the absence of a Supreme Court ruling.

On Wednesday, critics slammed the proposal for not including an exception to the 15-week limit for victims of rape or incest. Republicans rejected a proposed change that would have created an exception for pregnancies that are the result of rape, incest or human trafficking.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, filed the proposed change and said she was appealing to senators’ "basic human dignity."

"Should this bill pass in its current form, I am deeply, deeply concerned about what it will mean for women and girls across this state who may become pregnant as a result of rape, incest or human trafficking. We need to give women options all of the time," Book said.

In arguing for her proposed amendment, Book cried while telling members that she was drugged and raped by multiple men when she was a child. Book also was sexually abused by a female nanny as a child.

Stargel also shared an intimate story in arguing against Book’s proposed change to the bill. Stargel has spoken in the past about how she was urged to get an abortion when she was a teen but did not have the procedure.

"When I got pregnant at 17 and I went to Planned Parenthood, they said I would never be anything," Stargel said. "So we can all stand here and cry on the floor with our stories. And I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it (Planned Parenthood) is a business. But it’s not a business, these are babies. And it’s not a choice, it’s a child."

Nearly a dozen other proposed changes to the bill were blocked by GOP senators.

The bill would provide an exception to the 15-week limit for instances of a "fatal fetal abnormality." The bill defines such abnormalities as a "terminal condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of life-saving medical treatment, is incompatible with" survival outside the womb.

Two physicians would be required to certify that such an abnormality exists under the bill. Democrats criticized that proposed requirement as "onerous" and argued it could put an undue burden particularly on Floridians living in rural areas.

"Obviously you don’t have two OB-GYNs in your rolodex. You’re not a patient of two of them. So, by definition of this bill, you have to find a new doctor," said Sen. Tina Polsky D-Boca Raton, adding that the wait for an appointment with a new physician can take weeks.

Stargel argued that seeing two doctors is typical in such instances.

"The normal process is you would go to your OB-GYN, they would tentatively diagnose that abnormality, and most everyone then goes to the maternal fetal medical center to confirm that that is an abnormality," Stargel said. "So that would be your second opinion. So I don’t believe this is an undue burden on the mother."