When it comes to abortion rights, especially across the South, Florida state senator Lauren Book sums up the state of things: “We are under attack.”
Book, a Democrat from Hollywood, Florida, has seen the pattern emerge along with the rest of the country. Increasingly restrictive abortion bills are being voted on, and passed, by old white men. Most notably in May, all 25 votes in favor of Alabama’s passed abortion ban—the strictest in the country—came from men, denying the right to abortion even in the case of rape and incest (though it has not yet gone into effect).
The Alabama Legislature is made up of 84 percent men. Such gender imbalance is the norm in many statehouses nationwide, as it is in Florida where men make up 70 percent of both the House and Senate. But Book is no longer willing to accept the norm. The first-term senator recently introduced a bill for a potential constitutional amendment that would require at least 50 percent women in the chamber before the legislative body can vote on bills concerning abortion.
“At the very least,” Book said,“if these laws are being forced upon women, women should be at the table.”
Book’s bill was inspired by both the Alabama bill and her own personal history as a survivor of child sexual abuse. Book said she believes that forcing someone to carry a pregnancy that was the result of rape or incest is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment. She points out that people from Georgia and Alabama must often travel to Florida to receive abortion care, due to extremely strict abortion laws in those states and the fact that abortion is protected under the Florida constitution until 24 weeks. For those people and for Floridians, Book said Florida must act quickly before Republican legislators begin to mimic Alabama—though some have already tried.
Over a dozen anti-abortion bills were filed in Florida last session, though none of them made it to a floor vote. But Florida State Representative Mike Hill, who attempted and failed to pass a 6-week abortion ban this year, has already spoken of his plans to reintroduce another version of the bill in the next legislative sessions. “God spoke to me,” Hill told the crowd at an anti-abortion rally this spring. “He said, 'you remove those [rape and incest] exceptions and you file it again.' And I said 'yes Lord, I will.' It's coming back. It's coming back. We are going to file that bill without any exceptions just like what we saw passed in Alabama."
The Alabama bill was eventually signed by the state’s governor, Kay Ivey, who is a woman. Book admits that bringing more women in to vote on abortion bills doesn’t inherently guarantee more pro-choice votes, but she does believe that she and other pro-choice women are more likely to find common ground with Republican women than men from either party on the issue of abortion, specifically on sexual assault exceptions. “At least we can come to a place of conversation, whereas on the other side [men] cannot relate,” she said. “These are cruel laws that only attack women.”
Book says that she hasn’t yet given much thought to how the law would factor in trans or non-binary lawmakers, some of whom may be personally affected by abortion legislation. “The gender identity piece is very important,” she said. “We don’t have anybody [who is trans] serving.”
But Book will need men to pass her bill before it can become law. After the bill is sent to a committee, it would need to make it to a vote and pass the Florida legislature, before ultimately ending up on the ballot for Floridians to decide whether to add it to the state's constitution. Ironically, Book has to win over Florida’s 70 percent male, Conservative-majority House and Senate in order to make that a reality.
While Book is aware that the odds are stacked against her bill, she’s not discouraged. “I know that I have a very long road to hoe with this,” she said, “but my challenge to colleagues on the other side of the aisle is, don’t fear the debate.”
Kara Gross, legislative director at the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, points out that while Book’s bill is the first of its kind in the U.S., legislative gender parity laws are already the norm in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, and many others.
She adds that Book’s bill isn’t about who’s more likely to be pro-choice or anti-abortion. “The issue is regarding who should be the primary decision makers in whether to restrict a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion care,” she said. “Should men be the primary decision makers and gatekeepers of access to women’s healthcare? All [the bill] does is ask the legislature to put that question to Floridians.”
Book agrees. “If we’re making these types of decisions, unless we have fair representation, there should be no conversation.”
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