Florida Lawmakers Pump the Brakes on ‘Unborn Child’ Bill After Alabama IVF Decision

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Republican legislators have mothballed a bill that would allow Floridians to sue over the wrongful death of a fetus in the wake of an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos should be considered children, causing several clinics in the state to halt in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Erin Grall, requested a vote scheduled to be held Monday in the Florida Senate Rules Committee be postponed. In an emailed statement to the Tampa Bay Times, she explained, “Although I have worked diligently to respond to questions and concerns, I understand there is still work that needs to be done. It is important we get the policy right with an issue of this significance.”

When the bill, SB 476, was announced, opponents were quick to slam it as a step toward “fetal personhood,” a concept that puts pregnant women, abortion providers, and advocates for reproductive rights at legal risk.

“As the bill is currently written, nothing is preventing an abusive partner or rapist from bringing a lawsuit for damages against a healthcare provider or friends and family members of the individual who had an abortion,” Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement earlier this month.

As it sailed through the legislature’s committees, however, Democratic lawmakers also began voicing concerns that its language was overly broad and could scare the state’s own fertility clinics into suspending services, according to The Washington Post.

Even before the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision was handed down, according to the Tampa Bay Times, Grall began tweaking the bill’s language, amending its definition of an “unborn child” to be a “member of the species Homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.”

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, who celebrated Grall’s decision in a Monday tweet, told the newspaper that the shelved version of the bill did appear to protect IVF treatment. But other Democrats insisted that the legislation still exposed healthcare providers to liability should treatment go awry. “You have a situation where you are creating a chilling effect for people who are proactively trying to have a baby,” she told the Post.

With the Florida Legislature’s regular session ending on March 8, the decision to put the bill on ice was seen by at least one proponent group as a killing blow. Andrew Shirvell, the executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, an anti-abortion organization, told the Orlando Sentinel that he didn’t believe a new version of the legislation could be passed by both Republican-led chambers in the next two weeks.

Asked about the looming deadline, Grall told the Tampa Bay Times she didn’t have “a crystal ball.”

In the days following the Alabama ruling, bills championing various versions of fetal personhood were introduced in at least 14 other states, according to NBC News, which cited data collected by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Guttmacher Institute.

“What’s happened in Alabama is extreme, but it is not happening in a vacuum,” Elisabeth Smith, the center’s director, told the outlet in a statement. “This is the chaos created by the Dobbs decision.”

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