Activists with Students for a Democratic Society staged a protest in the middle of a Florida House committee meeting Thursday as lawmakers were taking up a controversial bill banning abortions after 15 weeks.
After less than half an hour of public testimony, Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, chairperson of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, said he would have to cut public feedback short in the interest of keeping the meeting to its scheduled two hours.
Students from around Florida, many of whom had already testified against the bill, were outraged. They began chanting, “Let her speak!” drowning Avila out. With the committee unable to continue its business, the meeting was briefly paused while law enforcement escorted the students from the room.
The students left without incident, chanting “All power to the people!” and “The people united will never be defeated!”
Taylor Cook, 21, a student organizer at the University of South Florida, seized a portable microphone outside the committee building.
“They think they can shut our voices down? They think they can throw us out and deny us our right to speak?” Cook said to the few dozen student activists gathered outside the committee building, adding some expletives.
Meanwhile, inside the committee room, Avila called the meeting into a recess and several lawmakers exited out a back door. Law enforcement cleared the room. The meeting was paused to ensure the safety of the lawmakers and public, a House spokesperson said.
Once the meeting resumed, only journalists were allowed back in to watch the early portion of the lawmakers’ debate over the abortion bill. Eventually, other members of the public were allowed back in as well.
Avila declined an interview after the meeting. Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, the bill’s sponsor, did not stay in the committee room to take questions from journalists.
However, in remarks to lawmakers just before the committee adjourned, Avila said he called an end to public comment so representatives could fully debate the abortion measure.
“My intent, again, was to make sure each and every one of you had enough time to represent your constituents and represent the voice of your constituents,” Avila said.
In the end, the meeting went about 15 minutes late.
House Bill 5 would ban most abortions in Florida after 15 weeks. Under the bill, pregnancy would be measured from the first day of the pregnant person’s last menstrual period. The legislation does not come with exceptions for rape or incest. It does include exceptions for times when the life of the mother is endangered, or cases of a ”fatal fetal abnormality.”
Floridians may only obtain an exception in the case of such a fetal abnormality after getting written testimony from two doctors.
The bill cleared the committee with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposed. It has one more committee hurdle before a vote in the full House.
A similar measure, Senate Bill 146, has yet to be taken up by a Senate committee.
Thursday’s meeting underscored the challenge facing the bill’s opponents. An amendment offered by Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, would have required insurance companies to cover the second doctor’s visit mandated by law in the case of a fatal fetal abnormality. It was defeated on a party-line vote.
Before the recess, the committee did tweak a provision of the bill unrelated to abortion. A new program that would require the state Department of Health to create regional committees to review fetal and infant mortality got its potential funding increased from $260,000 to $1,602,000.
But the vast majority of Thursday’s discussion was about abortion.
In 2020, Florida saw some 75,000 abortions, according to the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration. About 4,300 of those procedures were performed during the second trimester — between 13 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. Of those abortions, 20 were performed after cases of rape. Three were performed in cases of incest.
Current Florida law allows abortions up until about 25 weeks of pregnancy.
Republicans argued that 15 weeks was enough time for a pregnant person to seek an abortion.
“Fifteen weeks? ... That’s a long time,” said Rep. Dana Trabulsy, R-Fort Pierce. “To me, because I believe life begins at conception, that’s generous.”
Democrats and the activists opposed to the bill argued that placing a 15-week limit on abortion would create an unfair barrier for vulnerable pregnant Floridians.
“My parents had me when they were 16 and 17, and we lived in poverty our entire life,” Cook, the student activist, said in testimony before her group was kicked out of the meeting. “My life would be ruined if I got pregnant right now. My parents’ lives were ruined. And I respect them for having me, I appreciate it, but if they didn’t want to, that is their right.”
Opponents of the bill also contend its abortion provisions would conflict with state and federal precedent governing access to the procedure. Since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the Supreme Court has limited the extent to which states can pass abortion restrictions.
Federal precedent could soon change, however. A Mississippi law passed in 2018 — on which Grall’s abortion measure was modeled — is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. If the conservative-dominated court rules that law can stand, it could pave the way for a lasting 15-week ban in Florida.