Florida's perennial abortion battle re-emerged Tuesday as a House panel approved bills that would block abortions after 20 weeks, require 24-hour waiting periods and target abortions that might be motivated by the race or gender of the fetus.
The Republican-dominated House Health and Human Services Access Subcommittee approved three bills in party-line votes, after testimony and debate that reflected the country's deep divide on the issue.
"I don't think that killing these children should be convenient,'' Rep. Mike Horner, a Kissimmee Republican, said at one point during debate about a wide-ranging bill, HB 277, that includes a 24-hour waiting period and places new regulations on abortion clinics and doctors.
Critics repeatedly hammered the bills as infringing on the ability of women and doctors to make medical decisions, with Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, describing a bill targeting abortions based on the race or gender of fetuses, HB 1327, as "insulting.''
"I think it's a very dangerous process to legislate morality,'' Rep. Steve Perman, D-Boca Raton, said at another point in the meeting.
The meeting renewed a years-long legislative fight about whether Florida should place more restrictions on abortions. People on both sides of the issue filled a meeting room in the Capitol's Knott Building, with speakers ranging from representatives of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union to a series of abortion opponents who testified about their decisions to give birth instead of terminating pregnancies.
The subcommittee voted 9-5 to approve a bill, HB 839, that would prevent abortions after 20 weeks unless a "medical emergency" exists that could lead to a woman's death or permanent physical damage. Sponsor Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, said some researchers say fetuses are able to feel pain at 20 weeks of development.
"I think this bill seeks to protect arguably the frailest members of our society from pain,'' Davis said.
But Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, questioned Davis' use of 20 weeks, describing it as an "arbitrary, unscientific number.'' The scientific community is undecided on the issue, with researchers citing anywhere from 19 to 29 weeks. Berman also said she thinks the bill violates the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
In 2010, 79,908 abortions were performed in Florida, with 73,883 performed at 12 weeks or earlier and 6,025 performed between 13 and 24 weeks, according to a House staff analysis
The most debate Tuesday centered on HB 277, which was approved 10-5. Critics said the proposal, which would require a 24-hour waiting period, could pose logistical problems for women who would have to travel to abortion clinics twice.
Also, the bill would require new clinics to be wholly owned and operated by doctors who have received residency training in abortion-related procedures. Planned Parenthood lobbyist Emily Caponetti said such requirements would make it hard to open and operate clinics and would limit access to abortions.
But bill sponsor Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, said the 24-hour waiting period, for example, is aimed at making sure women are fully informed before deciding to go ahead with abortions.
Meanwhile, the panel voted 9-5 to approve a bill that would require doctors to sign affidavits confirming that abortions are not being done because of the race or gender of the fetus. According to a House staff analysis, the U.S. has condemned such practices in China and India. Four states -- Arizona, Oklahoma, Illinois and Pennsylvania -- now prohibit abortions based on gender. Of those, Arizona also prohibits abortions based on race.
Sponsor Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said abortions based on those factors are a "barbaric practice" and that the bill is aimed at preventing discrimination.
"Race or gender should not be a factor in the decision to have an abortion,'' he said.
But opponents said the bill, dubbed the "Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity for Life Act" is designed to stigmatize abortion.
"This is perhaps one of the most disingenuous pieces of legislation I have ever seen,'' said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.