Abortion bill sidelined as proponents inundate governor's office with calls for approval
TALLAHASSEE — When he signs the state budget on Friday, Gov. Charlie Crist will be waiting for just one major piece of legislation from the 2010 session: a highly controversial abortion bill.
The measure, which would require pregnant women in Florida to view a sonogram of the fetus before an abortion, sits in a file drawer in the desk of House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, whose spokeswoman said there's no specific reason why it hasn't been sent to Crist.
"We just haven't sent it. There's no sense of urgency," spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said.
Crist must act on a bill within 15 days of receiving it. The bill would take effect July 1.
Opponents speculate that House leaders are deliberately delaying to give bill supporters the most possible time to flood the governor's office with calls and e-mails.
Todd Reid, staff director of the House Republican caucus, said the House is holding the bill "to give pro-life folks time to get their act together and contact the governor."
Through Thursday, Crist's office had received 20,018 calls, e-mails and letters urging him to sign the bill and 12,989 total messages urging a veto.
"We're ready for the House to stop playing politics with women's health and send the bill to the governor already. It's frustrating," said Stephanie Kunkel, legislative director of Planned Parenthood in Florida.
Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, a strong supporter of the bill, highlighted the importance of time in an e-mail he sent to abortion opponents last week.
"Now, more than ever, we have these days to overcome the opposition," Van Zant wrote May 18. "Knowing the governor's political strategy is to reach to the liberal left for votes, we who are fighting to protect these little lives must form a collective and large political voice."
Crist has repeatedly voiced strong reservations about the bill and he is expected to veto it.
The governor says he is antiabortion, but he supports the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States. Having recently shifted from a Republican to an independent to revive his struggling U.S. Senate hopes, Crist is tacking more to the political center toward independent and Democratic voters and away from the right where many abortion opponents are.
John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council, which supports the bill, said Crist should pay close attention to the feedback from constituents.
"He says he's the governor of the people, and he wants to do what the vast majority of people want," Stemberger said.
The bill (HB 1143) began as a routine measure regulating nursing homes.
In the final days of the session, without public testimony in legislative committees, Senate Republicans added a provision requiring women in the first trimester of pregnancy to view an ultrasound image of the fetus and listen to a doctor describe the fetus before an abortion can be performed.
The woman must pay for the procedure but can decline to see the sonogram if she signs a form or presents verified evidence of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking.
The bill passed the Senate by a 23-16 margin and in the House by 76 to 44.
The bill also prohibits private health care insurers from covering the cost of abortions if the plan is subsidized by the federal or state government.
The policy is designed to limit coverage for abortions under the new federal health care law through exchanges and tax breaks. A woman with a subsidized health care plan would need to buy extra coverage or pay out-of-pocket for an abortion.
Van Zant said he did not know why the bill remains in the speaker's office after all this time, but it didn't sound like a coincidence to him.
"It's political up at the Capitol. There's always strategy going on," he said. "Nobody up there does anything without a motive."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.