Sneaky or innocent? Florida bill looks like a trick up anti-abortion lawmakers’ sleeve | Opinion

In a vacuum, Florida House Bill 651 isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

If a pregnant woman has a miscarriage as a result of a car crash or a doctor’s neglectful or intentional actions, for example, should parents be allowed to sue the person who caused them so much pain? Common sense would say of course.

That is what the sponsors of the legislation say their intention is. Florida law already makes it a crime to cause the death of a fetus, so the bill would allow parents to ask the courts for civil damages for the death of an “unborn child” caused by a wrongful act or negligence.

The problem is that HB 651 may be a Trojan horse.

Filed by the same lawmakers who sponsored Florida’s six-week abortion ban — a challenge to the law is being heard by the Florida Supreme Court — there is legitimate concern that its ultimate goal is to allow men recruited by anti-abortion groups to sue healthcare providers who perform abortions. A woman who gets an abortion would be immune from prosecution under the bill but the doctors and nurses who perform the procedure would not.

Would that mean that doctors and nurses who perform abortions could be liable for damages? No one knows for sure because the bill is so vague, but Florida’s already limited abortion access could become more out of reach if doctors are afraid of expensive litigation.

Sponsor Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers, is adamant that her proposal is about helping grieving parents and that it “has nothing to do with abortion.” Indeed, the bill does not mention the word “abortion,” but, as we learned with previous laws the impact of legislation isn’t just measured by which words lawmakers include in it. Take the parental rights law critics call “Don’t say gay.” It didn’t ban classroom lessons about LGBTQ issues by outlawing the word “gay” but by banning discussions on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

Persons-Mulicka’s legislation raises big questions not just because she sponsored the six-week ban but because it seems purposely murky. Ambiguous and vague laws often lead to their most radical and extreme interpretations.

HB 651 allows “the parents of an unborn child” to file wrongful death lawsuits, but it does not define what an “unborn child” is. Most states with similar laws only allow civil claims if the fetus was viable at the time of death — meaning it could survive outside the womb — which typically happens after 24 weeks. HB 651 would cover fetuses at any stage of development.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, abortion opponents have pushed to define life as beginning at conception and to grant fetuses more rights. Democrats fear that anti-abortion lawyers could use laws like HB 651 to try to further erode abortion access by arguing in court that a fetus at any stage of development has the same rights as any other person.

“I just don’t trust the intentions behind [the bill],” Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, told the Herald Editorial Board.

Another inconsistency in HB 651 is that it would keep a provision of Florida law that bans fathers of a “child born out of wedlock” from filing wrongful death claims unless he “has recognized a responsibility for the child’s support.” Under the bill, the father of an “unborn child,” on the other hand, would be allowed to pursue civil remedies — even if they took no responsibility for a pregnancy. Would this allow no-show, would-be fathers to become plaintiffs in lawsuits against abortion providers? In the fight over reproductive rights, nothing is too far-fetched.

Let’s take Persons-Mulicka at her word that this is not anti-abortion legislation. Simple fixes could clarify the legislation’s ambiguities while still providing legal recourse for grieving parents. Gantt tried to amend the bill during a House hearing, adding language to protect abortion providers from being sued, but Republicans rejected her proposal.

If HB 651 has truly “nothing to do with abortion,” then why leave that door open? The answer to that question is self-evident.

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