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Abortion Bill Passes Senate

After more than an hour of contentious debate, the Florida Senate voted Wednesday to require women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound and, in most cases, have the image of the fetus described to them.

The women wouldn’t have to look at the image afterward, if they sign a form declining to do so.

Women who can show they are raped, or a victim of incest or domestic violence, wouldn’t have to have the image described to them, but still would have to have the ultrasound.

The Senate also approved a provision barring the use of state or federal money to pay for abortion – which could mean that women would also have to pay for the ultrasounds.

The ultrasound amendment passed on a 22-17 vote, with one Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, voting yes, and several female Republican senators voting no. Only one female senator, ardent abortion opponent Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, voted yes on the ultrasound bill, though Republicans Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, voted yes on the funding amendment.

That measure passed 24-11.

The language, put into a broader - but minor - health care bill (HB 1143) by Sens. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, drew intense and sometimes angry debate. The measures will now be available for a final vote in the final two days of the 2010 legislative session.

Democrats assailed the amendments as an attack on a woman's right to choose, but backers said that the ultrasound amendment simply provided for informed consent and the funding amendment codified federal law in state statutes.

Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who unsuccessfully offered several amendments to restrict the proposals, took issue with the requirements for avoiding having to hear about or view the image.

“On the merits, I oppose this amendment deeply,” Gelber said of the ultrasound requirement, adding it was “offensive to women in the state of Florida.”

But Gardiner, who came under pressure from pro-life advocates recently for allowing a bill with similar language to be tabled in a committee, said ultrasounds are becoming more common to test for birth defects. The amendment, he said, would just offer women an opportunity to have that information as they make a decision on having an abortion.

“All this does is say we’re also going to let you see, if you want to see, the ultrasound. To see the heartbeat, to see the opportunity that may come with the birth of that child,” he said. “If we truly believe from a health care standpoint of informing the patient across the board…then they should be given all the information, including access to an ultrasound.”

Democrats said the funding ban could prohibit women from using their private insurance to pay for abortions if their employer gets a tax credit for providing coverage, but sponsor Haridopolos was unmoved.

“I do not think taxpayer dollars ... should pay for abortions,” he said.

Some Republicans said it was not so cut and dry, however. Lynn said a woman may be uncomfortable providing documentation of a rape to avoid an ultrasound if the attacker was a relative.

“I’ve had a horrendous situation,” she said, speaking hypothetically. “My very abusive husband attacks me, rapes me. We have other children (and) one more in this situation would destroy me and my other children. Do I have to go to the police and report my husband and get some piece of paper that I then bring back when I’m trying to stay alive?”

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, agreed that women who choose to have abortions face tough decisions. Wilson also said the amendments unfairly targeted poor women.

“I’m sure every one of you sitting in this chamber today, if your wives wanted to have an abortion, or your children wanted to have an abortion, you could afford it,” she said. “We’re affecting people who we do not know. Some of these people live in places you would not be caught dead in. You should not be here making policy to affect the least of us.”

Wilson said she took issue with the fact the most of the vocal support for the abortion ban came from male lawmakers. But the lone woman to support the ultrasound ban, Sen. Storms, said it was opponents of the amendments who were being paternalistic.

“I’m surprised to hear men argue about how I should be offended,” she said. “I rise as a woman who has an X chromosome and all the necessary accoutrements that make me a woman, and I’m not offended. We’re not little girls. We’re adult women and we’re making decisions. We can walk into a clinic and we can make a decision. We’re not afraid of information.”

But Sen. Nan Rich, D-Westin, predicted the measure would lead to a female voter backlash against the majority Republican Party, similar to the opposition from teachers in the state to a controversial teacher pay bill the Legislature pushed this year.

“The women of Florida are going to rise up against this,” said Rich. “I really can’t wait for the women to tell you what they think about this piece of legislation.”

Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, tried unsuccessfully to have the ultrasound amendment ruled out of order, arguing that it should have been considered by an appropriations committee because it has a fiscal impact. However, Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami ruled the amendment in bounds because the rules say amendments with fiscal impacts “may” be referred to appropriations.

Aronberg predicted if the measures become law, they would be struck down by the state Supreme Court, or by vetoed like the teacher bill by Gov. Charlie Crist, who has already overturned two bills passed by the Republican-led Legislature and is widely believed to be on the verge of leaving the Republican Party in his race for the U.S. Senate.

“The one person who will benefit from all this…will be the governor, because I believe he vetoes this bill,” Aronberg, who is himself a candidate for attorney general, said. “What’s good policy can also be good politics.”

The bill still needs House approval and House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon said the chamber is still studying the Senate’s abortion language, though he said he voted for a similar ultrasound requirement that passed the House a couple of years ago.

“First I heard of it was a couple hours ago,” he said.

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