A bill requiring parental consent for teenagers seeking an abortion stalls in a Senate committee

Some 8,000 protestors on both sides of the abortion issue paraded for legislators who convened a special session of the FL Legislature in 1989 to take up the issue. Photo by Mark Foley. State Library & Archives of Florida.

A bill requiring teenage girls to have parental permission before undergoing an abortion stalled in a Senate committee on Tuesday.

After sorting through 16 amendments, the Senate Health Policy Committee ended its meeting without taking a vote on the bill (SB 404) that would require women under the age of 18 to obtain the consent of a parent or legal guardian before having an abortion.

Sen. Gayle Harrell, the Stuart Republican who heads the committee, said her panel would take up the bill again during its December meeting.

Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, who supports the legislation, complained that the committee should have voted on the bill after an hour and a half of discussion.

“What we have witnessed is [a] delay of game,” Baxley said.

But Palm Beach County Democratic Sen. Lori Berman, who opposes the bill, strongly objected to that characterization, after the committee rejected a series of amendments from Democratic senators seeking to modify the legislation.

“This is a not a game to us. I want that understood. We are doing this because this is our constitutional right to privacy … and we are talking about women’s reproductive health rights and those are not a game,” Berman told the Florida Phoenix.

The Florida House of Representatives is ready for a floor vote on its parental-consent bill (HB 265), which cleared the Health and Human Services Committee last month. In the 2019 session, the House voted 69-44 for the bill.

But the key to the passage of the legislation in the 2020 Legislature is the Senate.

In 2019, the Health Policy Committee approved a parental-consent bill in a narrow vote, but did it not receive another Senate hearing because the legislation moved too late in the 60-day session.

Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who supports the bill, said the legislation would move earlier during the 2020 session.

Although Florida law already requires parents to be notified if a teenager is seeking an abortion, Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, who is sponsoring the Senate bill, said the parental-consent requirement would further strengthen the family bonds between the parents and the child.

Under the notification law, Stargel said, a young woman can say “I’m having an abortion” but “it doesn’t require the conversation, it doesn’t require the discussion with the family to show support or to not show support.”

She said the consent mandate would allow the teenagers and their parents or guardians to discuss issues such as the health consequences of abortions and pregnancies.

“Those things need to be done within the confines of a family, not through a bunch of outside people,” Stargel said. “I know there is the concern of a dysfunctional family, but the majority of families are functional. And many parents would not harm their children.”

The bill provides an exception for medical emergencies and creates a process whereby a judge could waive the consent requirement.

Democratic senators sponsored 15 of the 16 amendments to the bill. But they were all voted down along party lines by the committee, which has a 6-to-4 Republican majority.

Among the defeated measures were an attempt to lower the consent age to 16 and a provision to allow mental health professionals, such as a psychologist, to approve an exemption for a teenager who is seeking abortion.

Berman, who sponsored a number of the amendments, asked Stargel what the difference was between her bill and a 1988 Florida law that the Florida Supreme Court found violated the unique privacy provisions in the Florida Constitution.

Stargel some changes have been made, including a provision that requires a lawyer be appointed for teenager if she seeks a judicial waiver and requests legal help.

Supporters of the legislation also argue that the state Supreme Court, which is now dominated by conservative justices after a series of appointments by Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Gov. Rick Scott, may take a different view of the constitutional privacy provisions.

“What may happen? I don’t know. We have a new court. We may have different rulings. But this has merit in its own right,” said Baxley.

If the Senate bill passes the Health Policy Committee in December, it will face additional hearings before the Senate Judiciary and Rules committees before it can advance to the Senate floor.

The 2020 Legislature begins its annual session on Jan. 14.