A look at the new threats to a woman’s right to choose

Pro-choice protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court last summer. NBC News screenshot

For anyone who believes a woman has a right to choose when to start a family, these are worrisome times on both the state and federal levels.


– On the national front, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit a minor from crossing state lines to get abortion services without notifying a parent and co-sponsoring six other abortion-related bills. One of them – the Protect Funding for Women’s Health Care Act – would prohibit federal funding for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Several states have passed abortion bills that could land on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, where the landmark Roe v. Wade decision gave women the right to safe and legal abortions in 1973.

– In Florida, the state Supreme Court, a longtime bulwark against attempts to restrict abortion, has gone through a metamorphosis this month, with three longtime liberal-leaning justices retiring and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appointing three conservative-leaning justices. Perhaps in anticipation of that new right-ward turn on the court, a state lawmaker filed legislation that would prohibit a pregnant woman from getting an abortion in Florida if a physician detects a fetal heartbeat – which can happen as early as six weeks, a time when a woman might not even know she is pregnant.

To discuss these latest developments and how they might affect a woman’s legal right to choose to end a pregnancy, the Phoenix spoke with the new head of Planned Parenthood, Dr. Leana Wen, and Lillian Tamayo, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida.

We began our interview by talking about Florida House Republican Mike Hill’s bill, which would prohibit a pregnant woman from getting an abortion in Florida if a doctor detects a fetal heartbeat.

Dr. Wen -This type of legislation has been introduced around the country, and I’ll just give you the national context around this. In the last seven years, there have been over 400 laws passed that directly restrict abortion access around the country. And for me as a doctor, I know this is about patient’s lives. At six weeks, most women don’t even know that they’re pregnant. This is just one more restriction on people’s ability to access healthcare, which is what abortion is. One in four women will have an abortion in our lifetime. Abortion is standard medical care, and we need to understand it as part of the whole spectrum of reproductive health care, which is health care.

Tamayo – What’s particularly alarming about this bill is that when you look at Gov. Kasich in Ohio,  who is a vehemently anti-choice governor, he has vetoed this type of bill, number one, because it’s unconstitutional, and number two,  because the cost of defending an unconstitutional bill would have cost Ohioans millions and millions of dollars to defend. So that is sort of a piece to this that,  I think,  as we watch this unfold in Florida,  we know that we have a higher privacy protection in our Florida Constitution. However, we don’t take this type of attack lightly.

Florida Phoenix: We are going through a major transition with our Supreme Court, which has been a liberal court over the past two decades but is shifting to a conservative one with three vacancies open just as a pro-life Republican governor is taking the reins. The previous court has knocked down most of the major anti-abortion bills proposed by the Legislature and signed by former Governor Rick Scott. Are there concerns about what looms ahead?

Tamayo – We have relied on the Florida Supreme Court to be the checks and balances to any kind of unconstitutional attacks by the Florida Legislature as it relates to abortion care, or just abortion services in Florida. You’re exactly correct. I don’t know if we can rely on the Florida Supreme Court in the future for that purpose. However, let’s also remember that last year, as a byproduct of the Constitutional Revision Commission, there was an attempt to gut the privacy protections in that process. And Floridians came out – those who support women and women’s reproductive health care as well as all of our respective allies – to speak with one voice and fight back against this, and regardless of who is on the Florida Supreme Court,  we have codified the right of privacy in the Florida Constitution.

Dr Wen – We are deeply concerned about the U.S. Supreme Court with Brett Kavanaugh. We face the very real probability within the next year that Roe v. Wade could be overturned or further eroded. And if that were to happen, 25 million women, which is one in three women of reproductive age, could be living in states where abortion is not allowed and criminalized. So it is a challenging time that we are living in, because at the end of the day, it’s about women’s lives that are on the line.

Florida Phoenix: Does Florida Planned Parenthood believe there will be more anti-abortion rights bill proposed in the 2019 Florida legislative session, where the new high court is likely to look much friendlier at such legislation?

Tamayo – I think it’s very possible. I also know that … there is an overwhelming regard in Florida and in the country for the Roe decision. But to answer your question head-on, I could see a flurry of additional bills coming out – every variation of abortion restriction, and it’s not only that. The Florida Legislature has made it their priority not to expand Medicaid. To limit and create more obstacles for women to secure preventative health care. This is par for the course. We’re not just talking about abortion care. We’re talking about family planning. We’re talking about cancer screening. We’re talking about STD and HIV testing.

Florida Phoenix: Although much of the Republican establishment has argued for decades that Roe is bad law and that it needs to be overturned, interestingly, I didn’t hear too many Republicans talking about that last summer when they rallied behind the Kavanaugh nomination.

Dr. Wen – I’m a doctor and scientist, and I have to go according to the evidence. And the evidence is that the vast majority of the American people support Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. The vast majority of the American people understand that a woman’s body is her own, and that a personal health care decision like reproductive health care, just like all other aspects of health care, should be made by the woman in consultation with her doctor and that politicians have no role in the exam room.

We saw this manifest in the mid-term elections, when women –  particularly women of color – rose up in record numbers and voted for a pro-reproductive majority in the House of Representatives. We saw 25 governors elected who are pro-woman’s health. We have 19 state legislatures including in D.C. that will protect Roe v. Wade and that are pro-reproductive health and women’s health, and so this is the will of the people around the country.


Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.


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