Gov. Ron DeSantis rose to prominence without talking much about abortion, but his views now are of intense interest and consequence in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court abolishing federal protections for the procedure, paving the way for more state-level restrictions.
Florida is the largest Republican-led state where abortion still is available for the vast majority of those seeking seek them, making it a major target for anti-abortion activists going forward.
With 75,000 abortions performed in Florida in 2020, how DeSantis handles the issue could impact tens of thousands of women in Florida and his own political future.
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DeSantis says he wants to ‘expand pro-life protections’The abortion debate is politically explosive and, so far, DeSantis is proceeding with uncharacteristic caution, offering vague assurances to conservatives who want to see more abortion restrictions without committing to any specific policy changes that could galvanize his opponents as he seeks reelection.
DeSantis put out a statement last week saying he wants to “expand pro-life protections,” but has not seemed eager to engage on the issue. He didn’t mention the Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade during two more recent public appearances and didn’t take questions from reporters after either event. He hasn’t spoken publicly about the ruling.
During his first gubernatorial campaign in 2018, when he was locked in a competitive GOP primary, DeSantis said he supported legislation that would outlaw an abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is roughly around six weeks of pregnancy.
Asked if the governor will pursue such a measure, which leading Florida anti-abortion activists have pointed to as a preferred next step in recent days, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said “we very much look forward to pursuing additional legislative protections for the unborn” but did not offer specifics.
Pressure is building on both sides of the political aisle, with conservatives calling for more abortion restrictions and liberals rallying in the streets against the Supreme Court decision.
Most favor abortion rightsPolls indicate Democrats have an advantage on the issue, with most Floridians supporting abortion rights.
DeSantis hasn’t seemed concerned about antagonizing the left in the past. He gained national attention for fighting COVID-19 restrictions and so-called “woke” left-wing ideology, enduring plenty of criticism from Democrats in the process.
DeSantis often picks political fights that have broader support than restricting abortion, though. The issue has not been a defining aspect of his time as governor.
While DeSantis signed a bill, HB 5, this year banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, it only outlaws a small number of abortions. More than 96% of abortions in 2019 were done within 13 weeks of a pregnancy. Many red states have gone further, limiting abortions to just the first few weeks of pregnancy or outlawing them entirely.
Widely viewed as a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, DeSantis rarely is out of step with the GOP base. With Roe gone, there will be increasing pressure on him from the right to put more restrictions on abortion.
By the way: Conservative warrior DeSantis not as aggressive on guns or abortion
Calls for abortion special sessionThere already have been multiple calls for DeSantis to hold a special legislative session to restrict abortion access, something he has resisted.
The latest came from state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, one of the most conservative members of the Legislature and a candidate for Congress.
Republican leaders aren’t jumping at the suggestion, pointing to unresolved legal issues at the state level as a reason to delay further actions on abortion.
Florida’s 15-week abortion ban currently is being challenged in state court, where Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled Thursday that the restriction clashes with an earlier state Supreme Court ruling, which concluded that abortion is protected by the Florida constitution’s right to privacy.
The 15-week law also will remain in place once Attorney General Ashley Moody files an anticipated appeal to that injunction order, leaving the case in the hands of the state Supreme Court.
DeSantis has reshaped the Supreme Court with more conservative justices. The case involving the 15-week ban is being closely watched to see whether they follow the same path at the U.S. Supreme Court in rolling back abortion protections.
“This week, we are actively engaged in a legal battle over the recently signed pro-life HB 5,” Pushaw said. “These challenges are pending in state court and are distinct from the federal issues resolved by the Supreme Court last week. Our future legislative action necessarily depends on the resolution of these legal issues.”
Privacy law: Florida has a unique right protecting abortion. Its framers designed it that way.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson pointed to litigation surrounding HB 5 in their statements on Roe being overturned, with Sprowls noting the question of whether Florida’s constitution protects abortion rights creates “an additional hurdle.”
Sabatini said the litigation is being used as political cover by Republican leaders. Florida now has the “single most right-wing Supreme Court in the United States of America” and there’s little doubt it will uphold the 15-week ban, he said.
‘It’s a cowardly pretext they’re using to deflect public pressure for them to act,” Sabatini said. “It’s obvious. Come on, if you’re really pro-life you’re going to do everything you can to further protections for the unborn. They’re just trying to kick the can down the road because they don’t want to deal with it.”
Sabatini, who has a long history of feuding with legislative leaders, believes DeSantis is being stymied by the Legislature on abortion.
“The governor is constantly having to carry the Legislature on his back because it’s chock full of cowards,” he said.
The Florida Senate historically has been an impediment to abortion restrictions. It has become more conservative in recent years, but it’s not clear how much support a bill that completely or mostly cuts off abortion access could garner.
Incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo expressed reservations last year about replicating a Texas abortion law in Florida. The Texas heartbeat law included enforcement provisions that Passidomo opposed, although she said she supported the overall concept of outlawing abortion when a heartbeat can be detected.
DeSantis is immensely popular within the GOP and the Legislature has proven willing to accede to his demands on slew of high-profile bills, from redrawing congressional maps to punishing Disney. Republicans leaders are looking to him for guidance and likely would go along with whatever he proposes.
Going slow on the abortion issue could benefit DeSantis politically.
Top Republicans are concerned about how the Roe ruling could impact the party in the upcoming election, which had been shaping up to heavily favor the GOP.
“This is kind of one of those issues that you probably didn’t need during an election year quite frankly,” said Indian River County GOP Chair Jay Kramer.
Democrats already are using the issue to try and rally their base of supporters.
“This is only the beginning — if DeSantis wins in November he will pursue an all out ban. There is no debate about that,” tweeted state Rep. Anna Eskamani, who spoke at a recent rally protesting the Supreme Court ruling.
A costly win for conservatives?
Overturning Roe was a big win for anti-abortion activists, but it could come with a cost.
“That’s the million-dollar question: You won a victory — how much did you pay for it?” Kramer said. “That’s one of the things that remains to be seen.”
Some conservative activists are happy to give DeSantis some breathing room on the abortion issue in the short term, expecting that he’ll deliver after the election.
“We’re going to support whatever effort Gov. DeSantis does,” said Citrus County GOP Chair Mike Moberley. “So far he hasn’t shown his hand what the next step would be and we need to wait for the governor to make that decision.”
Christian Family Coalition Florida Executive Director Anthony Verdugo said DeSantis is politically savvy.
“This governor is committed to protecting human life but he is also a very smart man and he realized Florida is not a typical red state — not yet at least,” he said.
Verdugo said he expects more after the November election. The desire from grassroots conservatives is for either an all-out ban on abortion or a heartbeat bill, he said.
“I think the next natural step is the heartbeat bill,” Sabatini said.
Republican state Rep. Webster Barnaby filed heartbeat legislation this year, but it never advanced in any committees. He said he hopes to work with House leadership and DeSantis on an abortion bill next year.
“I think we have the political will and I think we have the votes to do something favorable,” he said. “Exactly what we will craft and what we will do I cannot tell you at this point, I can only tell you we will do something. I can guarantee you that we will do something.”
While DeSantis and GOP leaders aren’t rushing forward with stricter abortion laws, anti-abortion groups in Florida are eager to tighten restrictions or end the procedure all together.
After POLITICO published a leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision, one prominent pro-life leader urged DeSantis to take immediate action.
Andrew Shirvell, founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, is among the most outspoken abortion opponents in Florida. In May, he published a letter to DeSantis demanding a special session on abortion in Florida.
“The time for action is NOW!” Shirvell wrote. “Governor DeSantis must act to save Florida’s unborn children. How DeSantis responds at this historic moment in time will forever cement his legacy.”
Shirvell isn’t alone. Days later, the Florida Family Policy Council published a five-step guide titled “Thinking Clearly After Roe.” The guide describes life after the decision as “only the beginning” of the post-Roe movement and urges pro-life lawmakers to move swiftly.
It outlines several steps, including the election of pro-life candidates and a roll out of educational reforms that reflect the “horrors” of abortion. “Care for women and children” is listed as a top priority, while public policy changes at all levels of government ranked second.
“This is plan on how to create a world where we love children and not kill them,” wrote John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. “A plan on how to create a society that looks back on the practice of abortion like we look back on slavery, with shame and disgust.”
The Democratic National Committee considers the potential rollback of abortion access as a possible game-changer ahead of the election. Their multi-state digital ad campaign, unveiled last week, is warning voters of a potential nationwide abortion ban. The ads will play across key swing states including Georgia, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Said DNC States Communications Director Brooke Goren. ‘Now that Republicans have succeeded in their decades-long war to overturn Roe v. Wade, they’re telling voters what they have planned next: banning abortion across the country.”
Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at email@example.com
Jason Delgado is a reporter for the USA Today Network-Florida. He’s based in Tallahassee. Reach him at JDelgado@gannett.com