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Abortion Debate Never Far From Legislative Spotlight

Ruth Rodriguez drags the aluminum legs of a large, white tent across the floor in front of the Florida Capitol building’s Waller Park entrance Monday morning. The sun is just beginning to rise and a light rain sprinkles her group’s displays. Rodriguez is a board member of Personhood Florida, the Sunshine State’s chapter of Personhood USA, which advocates against any and all forms of abortion.

“We come up to the capital just to educate both citizens visiting the capital as well as the Legislature regarding why we believe that everyone has the right to life.” It’s Rodriguez’s second year of capital city advocacy. She says her Christian faith is her biggest motivator. “We are one of the few pro-life groups that states very clearly that we are made in the image of god. And because we are made in the image of god, we believe that those rights are given to us by our creator.”

She’s certainly not alone in her opposition to abortion. In fact, recent national polls show opposition growing among most age groups. But, unlike Rodriguez, younger Americans are far less likely to oppose abortion on religious grounds. Pew Research’s Millennials in Adulthood study shows that although millennials were just as likely to identify with the pro-life movement as their older counterparts, they were less likely to describe themselves as religious. Close to 60-percent oppose abortion while just more than a third describe themselves as religiously affiliated, the lowest among all other generations. They’re also more likely to support gay marriage and marijuana legalization. But Florida State University Political Scientist Lance Dehaven-Smith characterized the resurgence of pro-life attitudes as a logical political progression.

“Gay rights, legalization of marijuana are on the rise so to speak, support is mobilizing for them,” Dehaven-Smith said in a phone interview Monday. “But, abortion is an older issue. It was on the rise in the 1960s and 1970s, support for the freedom of women to choose abortion but, then there was a backlash against that.”

That growing backlash has led to a number of states passing stricter restrictions on abortion -- from Wisconsin’s requirement that women seeking abortions get an ultrasound to a Texas law requiring abortion doctors have hospital admitting privileges.

But, the pro-life movement in Florida hasn’t had the same success. A 2012 personhood referendum that would’ve effectively banned most abortions failed to garner the 60-percent of votes needed to pass. A number of bills in the 2013 legislative session died before ever reaching the floor. The only abortion-related measure to pass last session required doctors to provide emergency care to a baby who survives an abortion attempt.

This year, lawmakers are again considering changes to the state’s abortion policies. Lakeland Republican Representative Kelli Stargel is sponsoring a bill that would treat an act of violence against a pregnant woman and her fetus as separate offenses. Miami Republican Representative Anitere Flores filed a bill requiring doctors to use ultrasounds to assess the viability of an unborn child.  And Pensacola Republican Senator Greg Evers is again submitting his personhood bill that would ban nearly all types of abortions.

Although a pro-life swing seems very real, that doesn’t mean pro-choice advocates have gone silent. In addition to calling for legislators to expand Medicaid, Planned Parenthood activists huddled around the Capitol building’s first floor rotunda Monday to reiterate support for a woman’s right to choose. Heather Bryan is a University of Central Florida student. She made the four-hour trip to let lawmakers know how big of an issue healthcare and reproductive rights are to young voters.

“I realize the importance of getting young people involved in actively being able to advocate for their own health and reproductive rights and also advocating that to the greater community of Orlando. So, I got really impassioned and around that and got involved,” Bryan said.

Although it was clear that the more than 50 Planned Parenthood activists were pro-choice, leaders tried hard not to deviate from their press conference’s message of expanding healthcare. Florida Planned Parenthood spokesperson Laura Goodhew said that’s because the group is confident in Florida’s pro-choice credentials.

“In 2012 we actually had a ballot initiative that was anti-choice and would have restricted women’s access to healthcare and it was soundly defeated. So, we know that in Florida, people believe that politicians should not be interfering in personal medical decisions and that should be left with the women, her faith and the counsel of her doctor,” Goodhew explained.

Thus far, the only abortion-related bill to receive a hearing this session is Representative Stargel’s offenses against unborn children proposal.