On Monday afternoon, the Florida House of Representatives decided to move forward with one of the most radical anti-abortion measures in the US: a bill that would make it a first-degree felony to perform abortions in the state.
In an 8-3 vote, a House criminal justice panel voted to advance HB 865, known as the "Florida for Life Act." Under this proposed legislation, performing an abortion would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison; operating an abortion clinic would also, obviously, be illegal. Language in the bill boldly and directly contradicts Roe v. Wade, using religious reasoning as justification: HB 865 expressly states that "all human life comes from the Creator, has an inherent value that cannot be quantified by man, and begins at the earliest biological development of a fertilized human egg" and that "human life [is] the most fundamental gift from God."
This development has attracted media attention for predictable reasons—it's extreme, it directly challenges the constitutional right to choice, and it comes after a several years of rabid, unrelenting anti-abortion legislation from conservative politicians. However, personhood bills like this are not really all that uncommon. Leslie McGorman, the deputy policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, says that similar legislation gets introduced every session; however, it's still alarming that "there is a chamber in a legislature the size of Florida that has at least deemed it appropriate to give it a committee hearing."
In addition, Florida is not known for being as staunchly anti-abortion as several other states in the South and Midwest. "I think the fear for most people is that it's Florida, and Florida's not Texas or not Kansas," said McGorman. "This definitely causes people to think, Is this representative of what's happening out there?"
This definitely causes people to think, Is this representative of what's happening out there?
While legislation like this, which openly attacks the right to choose, is quicker to attract outrage, McGorman cautions that the bill's more insidious aspects are perhaps even more dangerous and appalling. In all, the "Florida for Life Act" is 31 pages long. While it has an exception in place for threat to the mother's life, it specifies that two individual physicians must "certify in writing that the termination of the pregnancy is necessary to prevent the death of the patient"—something McGorman calls "especially offensive."
"When a woman is getting ready to die, basically, and the state has determined that only in that instance is she eligible for an abortion, two physicians still have to sign off that she's at that point," McGorman says. A harsh anti-abortion law with a similar life exemption is currently in place in Ireland—where, in 2014, a refugee rape victim was given a forced C-section after she was unable to get three doctors to agree that she would commit suicide if forced to carry her rapist's baby to term.
The bill will also enact new restrictions around the disposal of fetal remains—something we've already seen occur in Ohio, Indiana, and Arkansas, all states that proposed legislation that would require women to specify whether the fetal tissue should be burned or cremated after they undergo an abortion or suffer a miscarriage. In addition, and tellingly, two other anti-abortion measures advanced in the Florida House that same week—HB 233 and HB 1411—both of which are similar to harsh abortion restrictions passed in Texas in 2013 and currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court. HB 233 would require providers in the state of Florida to undergo costly renovations in order to continue operating, and HB 1411 stipulates that abortion providers must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic.
The real intent behind all of these restrictions is a backdoor ban on abortion.
These "smaller, less sexy components" pose the same sort of direct threat to women's bodily autonomy as a full-on abortion ban, according to McGorman. "The real intent behind all of these restrictions is a backdoor ban on abortion," she says. "These kind of attacks, which happen around the edges, are ones that sound to the public like they're innocuous." Bills like HB 233 and HB 1411, which are colloquially known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, purport to be protecting women while really undermining their safety: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists publicly opposes such measures "because they improperly regulate medical care and do not improve patient safety or quality of care" and, in states with few providers, "can make abortion essentially inaccessible."
McGorman agreed with this characterization. "If you say, 'Oh, this is about protecting women's health and safety and making sure that the clinic is as safe possible,' most people would say, 'Oh, this sounds great; we're really happy that the state is looking out for our safety,' completely unaware that there's an ideological motivation—basically, to trick women into thinking this isn't something that's really just intended to take away their right to access abortion care," she said.
"The public doesn't support a ban on legal abortion, and that's why these personhood bills sound so outrageous," McGorman added, noting that NARAL polling has found that seven in ten Americans believe that abortion access should remain legal. Personhood laws like the "Florida for Life Act" consistently fail at the ballot, even in deeply conservative states. However, more insidious measures are successfully shuttering clinics across the nation, putting that right effectively out of reach for millions of women. "The real danger is what we're seeing in the Texas case we're seeing before the Supreme Court," said McGorman. After all, trying to pass an unpopular abortion ban is far less efficient than slowly eroding women's ability to access safe and legal procedures, riding on deceptive technicalities to keep them legal.