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In Florida, Abortion Debate ‘Like Seeing Public Policy Meets the Twilight Zone’

Rachel Wells

A Florida Republican backing forced parental consent legislation has referenced the white supremacist "replacement theory" in advocating for restrictive abortion laws.

Florida Republicans on Tuesday passed a forced parental consent bill through the senate committee on health policy a month after activists and Democrats stalled the anti-choice legislation.

The bill has two more committee stops before being heard for a full vote before the state senate.

The committee was scheduled to vote on the bill last month but was delayed when Democratic lawmakers presented amendments and student activists spoke against the bill. SB 404 would make it illegal to provide abortion care to a minor without written consent from a parent or legal guardian. Florida already requires parents or guardians to be notified before a minor’s abortion.

Republicans’ forced parental consent bill is understood to be a “stalking horse” meant to overturn Florida’s constitutional right to privacy, which state courts have interpreted to protect access to abortion over the years. State Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) laid out the legislation’s goal at an event recorded and posted to Facebook in August, referencing a shakeup of the state supreme court that has introduced new conservative judges who could ignore legal precedent and let stand the forced parental consent legislation. “We have some new court members. We need another look at what the privacy clause means,” Baxley said. 

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“Parental consent is an easy argument for us,” he said.  

The house version of the bill, HB 265, has passed the health and human services committee in October and awaits a full house vote when the legislative session begins in January. Republicans hold the governorship and a majority in both the state’s legislative chambers.

Advocates for and against the bill spoke during Tuesday’s committee hearing. Anti-choice pastors and ministers urged state senators to prioritize religion’s role in life and birthing decisions. “I was appalled by testimony stating a need for young people to ‘keep their zippers up’ and ‘close their legs.’ It’s foolish, disrespectful, and dismissive of victims of sexual violence and trafficking seeking safe abortion care,” state Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation), who sits on both the health policy and rules committees, told Rewire.News. “This bill is dangerous for girls in foster care and for victims of abuse or trafficking.”

“It goes against the advice of every single leading medical organization in existence. I won’t stand down, and I will not go quietly,” Book said. “I look forward to another opportunity to oppose and debate the bill in the rules committee and on the senate floor. We should never ever be forcing a child to have a child.”

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), If/When/How, a reproductive justice legal organization, and the League of Women Voters, along with student activists, addressed a person’s right to choose and the difficulty of navigating the state’s judicial bypass, a system allowing minors who cannot involve a parent to bypass the law and seek permission from a judge to have an abortion.

“Thirty-seven counties in Florida were unprepared to answer questions about the judicial waiver system,” Stephanie Loraine Pineiro noted during committee. Pineiro is the author of If/When/How’s report on Florida counties’ readiness to answer questions on the process, of which, only 16 percent of counties were prepared. 

When Imani Hutchinson, a Black female advocate and outreach coordinator with Florida A&M University (FAMU) Generation Action, addressed Baxley’s previous comments about a white supremacist “replacement theory” regarding abortion, she was interrupted and scolded by state Sen. Debbie Mayfield (R-Melbourne). “We do not attack you. We would appreciate it if you would not attack us, just because you disagree with our policy,” Mayfield said. 

Hutchinson was describing the bill’s ideological development and long-term goal before being cut off. Baxley in May referenced the white supremacist theory that a low birth rate among Europeans is leading to the replacement of white people with people of color, WLRN reported. Baxley later denied being a white supremacist. 

In nearly two hours of public testimony, no other speaker was interrupted like Hutchinson. “When a young woman had the courage to call out the self-acknowledged racist motivations of one of the senators on the committee, instead of being offended by him, another senator chastised the young woman instead for lack of decorum,” Laura Hernández, legislative manager with Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida, told Rewire.News. “Watching that committee meeting today was like seeing public policy meets the Twilight Zone. And it will be our most at-risk young people who pay the price for being used as political pawns.”

During a short debate, Book admonished the lack of attention paid to amendments meant to add protections to the bill. In the last committee meeting, Democrats addressed key concerns, including improving the judicial bypass system by developing training materials and creating a hotline and online portal for young people trying to get information in English, Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese. None of the amendments presented last month were passed by the Republican majority.

Democratic lawmakers, along with the support of pro-choice student advocates and organizations, vow to debate the merits of the bill and recommend amendments as it moves through the next committee.

“Supporters of this forced parental consent bill insist it will make young people safer in spite of every credible organization of medical, health, and pediatric professionals coming to the opposite conclusion,” Hernández said. “We will continue to turn out our supporters to speak to the harm of this bill and the true intent of this bill, which is to overturn Florida’s version of Roe v. Wade.”

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