The abortion debate reignited Wednesday in a divided Florida House committee that approved a bill seeking to ban sex- and race-selective abortions.
Both sides in the impassioned debate called it abhorrent to base an abortion on gender or race, but they bickered over specifics of the bill. The proposal would punish abortion providers for knowingly terminating pregnancies because of the unborn child's race or because the parents wanted a boy but were going to have a girl, or vice versa.
"The purpose of this legislation is to protect unborn children from prenatal discrimination through abortions based on the child's sex or race," said Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, the bill's lead sponsor.
Opponents called it an unwarranted intrusion into a woman's reproductive decision and into the doctor-patient relationship.
"This bill is taking us down that road of inserting government back into the lives of women at a time when they need privacy the most," said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth.
The measure (HB 845) cleared the House Judiciary Committee by a slim margin after a lengthy debate.
It would require abortion providers to sign an affidavit stating they had no knowledge the procedure was being done based on the unborn child's sex or race. Providers would be slapped with a $10,000 fine for failing to report such abortions.
Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, warned the bill would criminalize actions in doctor's offices. Another opponent, Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said it would create an "antagonistic relationship" between doctors and patients.
"Are we going to have doctors listening to patients surreptitiously?" he asked.
Van Zant claimed sex- and race-selective abortions are becoming more prevalent, but didn't provide any numbers on how many such abortions are done. He has said the U.S. has turned into a "safe haven" for people around the world wanting to terminate pregnancies for those reasons but are prevented from doing so in their own countries.
Much of the debate revolved around the role of government in people's lives.
"I just don't understand how members can talk about how government is too big, government is too much in our lives ... and then all of a sudden vote for this piece of legislation," said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs. "This is a dramatic expansion of government in people's lives."
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, responded that even limited government has a responsibility to protect the vulnerable.
"What is more vulnerable than an unborn child that is at risk of being destroyed for no other reason than because of their race or gender?" he said. "This is an insidious practice and it ought to be criminal."
Gaetz said he thought the issue should be one that bridges opposing sides in the abortion debate.
"Can we at least say that we're not going to abort a little child because they are a boy and you want a girl, or because it's a girl and you want a boy, or because of the race of the child," he said.
Abortion and other social issues have largely taken a back seat during Florida's 60-day legislative session that reached its halfway point this week.
Another bill that cleared the committee on Wednesday would make the death of an unborn child a separate crime from any offense committed against the mother, even if the perpetrator was unaware the woman was pregnant.
The measure (HB 759) would apply to fetuses at any point in gestational development. It would not apply to people conducting legal abortions.
Abortion-rights supporters said the bill is another attempt by abortion foes to elevate the status of fetuses to that of adult humans.
A bill that cleared the committee with support from both sides of the abortion debate would allow women to go to court to terminate the parental rights of men who impregnated them during rapes.
Kerner, an abortion-rights supporter, said his bill (HB 887) is one way to encourage victimized women to see their pregnancies through to child birth.
"After a woman goes through that horrific event and is now the victim, unless she has the ability to terminate the parental rights of the father, she may very well opt to go through an abortion so she never has to be tied to that rapist again," Kerner said. "This is an effective way to encourage a woman to take that child to term and let it live its life instead of going through the abortion process."