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For Florida’s Unborn Children, the 2021
Legislative Session was Tragically Disappointing
Andrew Shirvell, J.D. | 27 May 2021
Over the last decade, Florida surpassed New York as the third most populous state in the Union.[i] With that new designation, one would figure that the number of Florida abortion victims is high – and it is. Sorrowfully, more than 70,000 unborn children in Florida die annually via abortions.[ii] This is a crisis situation. Yet, during the most recent annual Legislative Session, the pro-life-majority Florida Legislature failed to get any anti-abortion legislation to the desk of Governor Ron DeSantis. As will be explained below, Florida’s failure to enact any abortion restrictions whatsoever is inexcusable, especially because 2021 has been rightfully termed the “Year of the Unborn Baby” due to a record amount of state pro-life legislative activity.[iii]
This year, Florida’s regular sixty-day Legislative Session began on March 2nd and concluded on April 30th. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected the session – even before it began. The pre-session committee weeks were truncated and began in January (which was later than normal). The Capitol itself was essentially locked down until one week after the session's conclusion.[iv] Public testimony before legislative committees was severely restricted. To make things more complicated than they should have been, the House of Representatives allowed limited in-person testimony via online registration. At the same time, the Senate only permitted remote testimony from a location several blocks away from the Capitol.[v] Despite the unusual circumstances, however, the Legislature went about its business, ultimately passing over two-hundred-sixty bills through both chambers.[vi]
A number of pro-life bills were introduced. Mirroring a national trend, pro-life legislators filed bills prohibiting abortions based on a diagnosis of genetic disability, including Down syndrome.[vii] As the leading Florida-based grassroots pro-life organization pushing for this lifesaving legislation, Florida Voice for the Unborn was able to get the disability abortion ban (House Bill 1221) through the House committee process.[viii] Near the end of the session, on April 23, 2021, the full House passed the ban.[ix] This, indeed, was significant because, although a version of this legislation had been filed in previous Legislative Sessions, it had never been heard before a committee, let alone passed on the floor, until this year. However, this victory was very short-lived because the Senate failed to take up House Bill 1221, as its companion (Senate Bill 1664) had been blocked by the pro-abortion chair of the Senate’s Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee, Senator Lauren Book (D—Broward County), who refused to place the bill on her committee’s agenda.[x]
The 2021 Florida Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (the “Act”) was filed in the House and Senate in January, weeks prior to the start of the session.[xi] The Act would have prohibited abortions in Florida on unborn children capable of feeling pain (right around twenty weeks gestation).[xii] A similar measure was filed in 2019,[xiii] but not in 2020. The 2019 version did not advance at all, and this year’s legislation shared the same fate. Outrageously, the Act was never even heard in a single legislative committee.[xiv] In fact, the same two House committees that heard and passed the disability abortion ban referenced above refused to consider the Act.[xv] If that is not truly maddening, then what is?
Other abortion-related bills also failed to go anywhere, such as House Bill 1437 and Senate Bill 1984, which would have required that the remains of unborn children be treated humanely instead of like garbage.[xvi] Neither bill received a committee hearing.[xvii]
Another pro-life bill, which technically had nothing to do with restricting abortion but instead provided a lifesaving option for newborns, was gutted during the last two weeks of the session. House Bill 133/Senate Bill 122 (Surrendered Newborn Infants) sought to amend Florida’s existing Safe Haven Law to explicitly permit the use of baby boxes for the safe surrendering of newborn infants at hospitals, fire stations, and emergency medical service stations that are staffed twenty-four hours a day.[xviii] This same legislation died during the 2020 Legislative Session because it did not pass through its required Senate committees.[xix] Again, the culprit was pro-abortion Senator Book, who ensured that the “Baby Box Bill” (as it has been informally referred to) would never be heard before her committee.[xx]
Thanks to Florida Voice for the Unborn’s lobbying efforts, the Senate bill was not assigned to Book’s committee for the 2021 session.[xxi] Nevertheless, Book managed to kill the bill anyway. The House version had once again sailed through its committee stops and passed overwhelmingly on the floor in a bipartisan manner on March 18, 2021.[xxii] The Senate bill's path was a bit rockier, but it passed its first two committee stops. Then, as the session neared its conclusion, the Baby Box Bill was scheduled for its final committee stop before, oddly enough, the Senate Appropriations Committee (even though the legislation was completely revenue-neutral, in that the state of Florida was not involved with funding the boxes).[xxiii] Half of the Senate (twenty members) sat on this committee.[xxiv] A few hours before the start of the hearing, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Dennis Baxley (R—Sumter, Lake, & Marion Counties), filed a late amendment to the legislation, which removed the boxes from the Baby Box Bill.[xxv] As amended, the bill only expanded the time to legally surrender newborn infants, from seven days after birth to thirty days after birth.[xxvi] It then passed unanimously through the Appropriations Committee.[xxvii]
Still, there was hope that the Baby Box Bill would be fully restored to its original version when the full Senate considered the legislation on April 26th. Indeed, the House version was substituted for the Senate bill.[xxviii] But that, too, was gutted in a similar fashion via a late-filed floor amendment by Senator Baxley.[xxix] Before the Senate passed the Baby Box Bill unanimously (without the baby boxes), Senator Book took the microphone and embarrassingly “thanked” Senator Baxley, who had been a reliable pro-life stalwart in the past.[xxx] It was a very sad day. The House sponsor of the legislation, freshman Rep. Joe Harding (R—Levy & Marion Counties), refused to go along with whatever dirty deal had been struck with Book in the Senate and reamended the bill to put back the baby boxes when the House reconsidered the matter on April 29th.[xxxi] Remarkably, the House passed the reamended version unanimously, probably knowing that the vote was largely symbolic since there were less than twenty-four hours remaining for the Senate to take it up again, which it never did.[xxxii] (Rep. Harding has already pledged to refile the Baby Box Bill for the 2022 Legislative Session, and he is actively seeking a new Senate sponsor).[xxxiii]
Florida’s pitiful inaction on behalf of the state’s unborn children stands in stark contrast to those of its sister states. Earlier this year, Oklahoma and South Carolina enacted laws that would ban abortions on preborn children with a detectable heartbeat.[xxxiv] And Texas – our country's second-most populous state – soon followed suit, with pro-life Governor Greg Abbott signing his state’s heartbeat ban into law on May 19th.[xxxv] Meantime, no Florida legislator this year had the courage to sponsor such a sweeping ban, even though Governor DeSantis pledged he would sign one during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign.[xxxvi]
A ban on abortions based on a diagnosis of "genetic abnormality" was also successfully enacted into law in Arizona. A ban specifically prohibiting abortions targeting unborn children with Down syndrome became law in South Dakota.[xxxvii] The latter was largely due to pro-life Governor Kristi Noem’s decision to make such a ban one of her priority bills.[xxxviii] Unfortunately, here in Florida, Governor DeSantis remained silent as Florida’s ban on disability abortions passed in the House and was left to die in the Senate.
This year, Montana also joined twenty-three other states that have enacted a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, banning abortions around twenty weeks gestation.[xxxix] The state list with such bans includes several of Florida’s neighbors, such as Georgia and Alabama.[xl] Accordingly, Florida has become a magnet for those seeking late-term abortions. Because the Florida Legislature failed to consider the 2021 Florida Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, it is estimated that over nine hundred babies will continue to be murdered via brutal late-term abortions here in the Sunshine State.[xli]
As demonstrated above, states – both large and small – have continued to enact pro-life laws in 2021, despite the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed. Florida should have done the same. After all, Florida has a so-called Republican state government trifecta, with a seventy-eight to forty-two Republican majority in the House,[xlii] a twenty-four to sixteen Republican majority in the Senate,[xliii] and a pro-life Republican executive in the governor’s mansion. Consequently, Florida’s top pro-life elected leaders are responsible for Florida’s inaction to protect the unborn in 2021: House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson, and Governor DeSantis.
In particular, Senate President Simpson is at fault. Last December, Florida Voice for the Unborn expressed deep disappointment in his decision to reappoint Senator Book – a pro-abortion Democrat – as chair of the Senate’s Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee.[xliv] Simpson then compounded his foolishness by having the disability abortion ban (Senate Bill 1664) and the bill mandating the humane disposition of unborn children’s bodies (Senate Bill 1984) assigned to Book's committee as their first committee of reference.[xlv] Because Book is a radical pro-abortion extremist, she simply refused to allow her pro-life majority committee[xlvi] to hear the bills – and Simpson did nothing about it. However, when another pro-abortion Democrat committee chair (who Simpson also ridiculously appointed) blocked one of Governor DeSantis’ priority bills, Simpson used a special maneuver to bypass that committee, thereby ensuring that the bill in question was brought before the full Senate and became law.[xlvii] Why did Simpson not also employ that maneuver for the pro-life legislation referenced above? Why did Governor DeSantis not use his bully pulpit to advocate for this year’s pro-life bills? How will Florida's pro-life legislative leadership stand up for the unborn in the future if those same leaders are so afraid of pro-abortion forces that they permitted the unconscionable torpedoing of the Baby Box Bill at the last moment? These are fair questions that need answers.
I founded Florida Voice for the Unborn in January 2020 because I was perturbed that the Florida Legislature had not put any pro-life legislation onto Governor DeSantis' desk in 2019. While Florida's unborn achieved a significant victory in 2020 when the parental-consent-prior-to-an-abortion law was enacted,[xlviii] 2021 has been deeply disappointing. Florida's pro-life elected officials have not lived up to their campaign promises, and Florida's unborn children will bear the brunt of their moral failings. With the very real possibility that the United States Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade[xlix] within the next year, Florida Voice for the Unborn and our grassroots supporters throughout the state are committed to ensuring that the results of the 2022 Legislative Session will be different for Florida’s unborn babies.
[xiv] See again, HB 351 (2021) - Protection of a Pain-capable Unborn Child from Abortion | Florida House of Representatives (myfloridahouse.gov) & Senate Bill 744 (2021) - The Florida Senate (flsenate.gov)
[xxi] See again, Senate Bill 122 (2021) - The Florida Senate (flsenate.gov)
[xxiii] See again, Senate Bill 122 (2021) - The Florida Senate (flsenate.gov)
[xxvii] See again, Senate Bill 122 (2021) - The Florida Senate (flsenate.gov)
[xxx] 4/26/21 Senate Session - The Florida Channel at 3 hours and 24 minutes.
[xlix] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
Andrew Shirvell, J.D.
Founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, a Tallahassee-based grassroots lobbying group that only focuses on pro-life issues impacting the unborn.