State Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview (Pic by Mark Foley, via myfloridahouse.gov)

A bill that has been described by critics as a “clean-up bill” written to include several anti-abortion measures that did not pass in the GOP-led Florida Legislature last year, passed in the Florida House today in a 78-33 vote.

The bill, which is sponsored by state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, contains provisions placing onerous restrictions on abortion providers statewide. Among the regulations is one requiring that all abortion clinics be wholly-owned and operated by a physician. Groups such as Planned Parenthood claim that the provision would make it nearly impossible for the chain of women’s health clinics to open any new facilities in the state. Providers would also be required to take ethics classes and would not be able to advertise their services, which critics say is a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The bill also instills a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking the legal procedure. State Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said during debate before the bill’s passage that this provision “delays a time-sensitive procedure” and would affect low-income women by forcing them to lose two days of work and wages.

Women’s health advocates have criticized the bill for its failure to include protections for the mental and physical health of those that are pregnant. The bill prevents third-trimester abortions, but allows for an exception only if it is “necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” The bill removes language, however, that provides an exception to “save the life or preserve the health of the pregnant woman.”

As of last week, the bill also includes a “fetal pain” measure that would outlaw abortions after 20 weeks. “Fetal pain” measures have been found to be “neither scientifically nor constitutionally sound” by researchers and operate under the premise that a fetus can feel pain as early as 20 weeks, outlawing abortions once a fetus is presumed to feel pain. Current law protects a woman’s right to have an abortion up to at least 22-24 weeks of pregnancy and the most recent study on this issue, published in Current Biology, found that a fetus does not feel pain until 35 to 37 weeks of gestation.

Maria Kayanan, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told the Florida Independent this week that the bill has become a “monster” and an “abomination.” She called the “fetal pain” provision “tabloid, so sensational [and] completely misleading.”

Kayanan, a lawyer for the ACLU, says that she has serious concerns with the legal ramifications of the bill. According to Kayanan, no other state in the country requires that clinics providing abortions be wholly-owned and operated by a physician – a requirement that would not only make it more difficult for clinics to open or relocate, but could also put providers at greater risk of harassment and victimization.

State Reps. Elaine Schwartz and Lori Berman introduced amendments to the bill that they said would impose “fairness,” restore protections for women’s health and regulate crisis pregnancy centers. Both amendments failed.

Schwartz, D-Hollywood, said the bill ”will not stop abortions,” but would instead damage women’s health and was “part of an insidious war against women.” Last year, the state Legislature passed several bills restricting access to abortions in the state.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said that, if the bill passes, “there are going to be fewer facilities” for women to turn to, leaving some with no choice but to turn to “wire coat hangers” and “butchers.”

Republican members claim the bill aims to protect the lives of babies and mothers across the state. During today’s debate, some conservative members also claimed that they did not agree with current science regarding when “viability”–  the moment at which a baby can survive outside of a womb– begins. Others questioned when a fetus could begin to feel pain.

State Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando, said that, in his opinion, viability starts at conception. Precourt also said that the bill is not intrusive, as Democratic members suggested, but”heroic.”

State Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored the “fetal pain” bill in the House before it was absorbed by this omnibus bill, went as far as to say that the bill would “add humanity” to abortion practices in the state. Davis said that he believes babies are “pain capable” starting at “5 weeks,” a claim that has little or no consensus in the medical community.

Before the bill went to a final vote and passed, State Rep. James Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, suggested that “all the men leave the room” so that only female legislators could vote, arguing that 63 men shouldn’t vote on a bill that would greatly affect the lives of women. They did not, and the bill passed by a large margin.

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