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Florida suspends bill to protect ‘unborn child’ after IVF ruling

Republican State Rep. Erin Grall, right, at the Florida State House in Tallahassee, Fla.
Republican State Rep. Erin Grall, right, at the Florida State House in Tallahassee, Fla., on Feb. 16, 2022. Republican lawmakers in Florida sidelined a bill that would have added fetuses to wrongful death lawsuits, a bill sponsored by the now Sen. Erin Grall. The bill would have added Florida to the ranks of about a dozen other states which allow parents to receive financial damages for the wrongful death of their unborn children. (Octavio Jones/The New York Times)

Republican lawmakers in Florida sidelined a bill this week that would allow lawsuits over the wrongful death of a fetus.

Those on both sides of the abortion debate attributed the pause to fallout from the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that frozen embryos should be considered children.

If it moves ahead, the bill would add Florida to the ranks of about a dozen other states that allow parents to receive financial damages in some instances when a fetus has died. The bill says in cases of wrongful death, parents of an “unborn child” are considered survivors who can sue in civil court.

But in recent weeks, Democrats and others warned that the bill amounts to “fetal personhood,” assigning full rights of a person to a fetus. Such a designation, they said, would imperil doctors and anyone who assisted women in obtaining an abortion and would also adversely affect fertility treatments.

On Monday, Republican legislative leaders in Florida announced that they had postponed the bill.

“Although I have worked diligently to respond to questions and concerns, I understand there is still work that needs to be done,” Sen. Erin Grall, a Republican from Vero Beach and the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “It is important we get the policy right with an issue of this significance.”

Why it matters: The IVF ruling presents new challenges for Republicans.

Last week’s ruling in Alabama created a political storm for Republicans who were already battling internal divisions and public opinion over abortion.

The Alabama ruling prompted opponents of abortion like former President Donald Trump and several Republican governors to underscore their support for IVF.

Although the Florida bill does not mention IVF, critics feared that it could affect fertility treatments and make it harder for families to have children.

“It’s fair to assume that IVF was a problem for this bill from the jump,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor and historian at the University of California, Davis, who used to teach at Florida State University. “But the degree of backlash and concern increased significantly after the ruling. It’s kind of like it turned into a firestorm.”

Background: Fetal personhood is a goal for anti-abortion activists.

With the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022, opponents of abortion have been able to devote more attention to another major goal: fetal personhood.

The Florida bill didn’t use the term “personhood.” Nor did it mention the word “doctor.” But opponents criticized the bill for being a de facto personhood bill. The bill’s sponsors said an unborn child is a “member of the species Homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.”

On Monday, after the bill was postponed, Florida Voice for the Unborn, an anti-abortion group, praised Grall for pulling what they said was a flawed bill, because the definition should apply to “those unborn children frozen as embryos.” The group also said that it expected the bill to be reintroduced and passed in 2025.

What happens next: Florida awaits a state Supreme Court ruling and a ballot measure.

With just two weeks left in the legislative calendar, the postponement suggested that the bill’s chances of passage were slim for this session.

Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation, the Democratic minority leader, wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that “thankfully, it appears personhood will not be the law of the land in our state.”

Floridians are awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the state law banning most abortions after 15 weeks. Separately, the state more recently passed a law that bans abortion after six weeks. If the court affirms the 15-week ban, the more recent six-week ban would be allowed to take effect.

Residents are also waiting to see whether they will vote on a ballot measure in November that would protect abortion rights in the state’s Constitution.

The state Supreme Court is weighing a challenge from opponents of the ballot initiative, who say that the language is too vague. But the court’s conservative justices, who have until April 1 to rule on the challenge, seem reluctant to block the ballot measure.

The ballot measure would require more than 60% support from voters to pass. According to a statewide poll conducted by the University of North Florida in November, 62% of registered voters said they favored the amendment, including 53% of Republicans.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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