Things were chaotic for Democrat Lauren Book in the hour before she was sworn in as minority leader of the Florida state Senate. She was getting her hair touched up and helping her 5-year-old daughter pick out shoes for the occasion.
The chaos will only intensify. As Book spoke with HuffPost on the phone while getting ready, she warned of a bitter fight over abortion rights in the next session, with existential stakes for reproductive health care in Florida — and beyond. She was exceedingly clear that it’s time for Democrats to fight tooth and nail to ensure abortion remains legal in her home state.
“This is it. It’s devastating. It’s all-encompassing,” Book said of what’s to come in the 2023 legislative session. “We have to be better and stronger and tougher, but even still, we’re outnumbered.”
Florida, once a safe haven for abortion care in the Southeast, is on the precipice of becoming no different than deep-red states like Texas or Oklahoma on reproductive rights. After a 15-week abortion ban went into effect earlier this year and the U.S. Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, anti-choice lawmakers in the Sunshine State are poised to restrict abortion even further. And with a Republican supermajority in both chambers and a vocal anti-choice leader in Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), it’s a given that Florida will lose access to abortion ― it’s just not clear to what extent.
Book, a 38-year-old former teacher and mother of two, has been at the center of the fight for reproductive rights in Florida. A survivor of child sexual abuse, she argued against the 15-week abortion ban that provided no exceptions for rape or incest survivors.
Minutes after Book disclosed her deeply personal story on the Senate floor in March, her Republican colleagues went ahead with the restriction anyway, without exceptions for little girls like her. “I have never in my entire life felt more devastated than that vote, that debate,” she said.
The 15-week abortion ban has already gutted access in Florida and the Southeast. Three of the four closest states have near-total abortion bans in effect, while the fourth, Georgia, is battling a six-week ban with a fetal personhood clause in state and federal courts.
Planned Parenthood centers in northern Florida are seeing three times the number of patients they saw before Roe fell, said Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida Alliance Planned Parenthood Affiliates. Many of the patients are from out of state, often having driven through the night from Texas or Louisiana to receive care before the 15-week point. The influx of patients has overwhelmed many of the abortion clinics, pushing people further and further into unwanted pregnancies.
Republican leaders of the Florida legislature, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner, have said they’d like to further restrict abortion. Passidomo recently mentioned the possibility of a 12-week ban that, notably, would include exceptions for rape and incest survivors. Passidomo and Renner declined HuffPost’s request for on-the-record interviews.
“We can expect a restriction,” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D), the minority leader in Florida’s House. “They’ve been unified on that point. What we don’t know is whether it will be a reduction to 12 weeks, six weeks or even an outright reduction.”
Every Florida Democrat who spoke with HuffPost had their own thoughts on what type of abortion restriction Republicans would put their weight behind. Some guess a 12-week ban; others are betting on a six-week ban or even a fetal personhood clause like in neighboring Georgia.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), who worked at Planned Parenthood for six years before joining the Florida House, thinks a six-week abortion ban is “highly likely.” And she believes DeSantis will push for the restriction in a special session set for January, instead of this month’s session, which is currently designated to discuss Hurricane Ian relief.
Without the numbers they need to outright block a bill, Democrats will have to be strategic in how they fight impending restrictions. They’ll need to use the bully pulpit to make their case to voters and get constituents riled up, and will need to reach across the aisle to new colleagues who may be more moderate on the issue of abortion care.
A ballot initiative is also in the works. After the success of pro-choice ballot initiatives during midterms, Florida Democrats are working on a state constitutional amendment that would codify reproductive health care for the 2024 election.
“A 2024 ballot amendment for abortion rights in Florida is definitely something that is being actively explored,” Eskamani said. She cautioned that it would not be easy to reach the 60% threshold to approve a ballot measure, and Republicans are currently trying to increase that threshold to 66%. It would be a massive, multimillion-dollar campaign, but Eskamani said it’s really now or never.
Driskell and Book both believe that whatever restriction Republicans put their weight behind, it will likely include exceptions for rape and incest to make an extreme bill appear more moderate.
“Those exceptions cannot save that bill any more than they could have saved the 15-week abortion ban,” Driskell said. “The point is that the restriction itself is unreasonable.”
“They’re going to give an exemption for survivors of these types of crime in hopes of absolving themselves of any terribly bad actions, and that’s just not the case,” Book said.
Florida Democrats have been forced to speculate about how extreme an anti-abortion law their GOP colleagues will push for because so many have been quiet on the issue in recent months. Some point to the ongoing Florida Supreme Court case against the 15-week ban as a reason they can’t move on the issue just yet. Eskamani and other Democrats are not optimistic that the state Supreme Court will rule that abortion care is included under the state constitution’s right-to-privacy clause.
One likely reason for Florida Republicans’ reluctance to move forward on abortion restrictions is that DeSantis is expected to run for president in 2024. Many of the Florida Democrats who spoke with HuffPost believe the governor will restrict abortion further than 15 or 12 weeks, and that he’s just waiting for the most politically profitable time.
“People have said Donald Trump is like Jason: He goes through with a chainsaw and he kills everybody there. Ron DeSantis is like Hannibal Lecter: He’s going to enjoy you with a glass of Chianti.”
DeSantis would need a more extreme abortion ban on his track record in order to win or even compete in what will likely be a crowded and far-right Republican presidential primary come 2024. A 15-week abortion ban doesn’t galvanize a religious base like the fall of Roe, which former President Donald Trump will almost certainly campaign on.
And it doesn’t matter when the governor decides to act, because he has effectively “hijacked” the House speakership and Senate presidency, said state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby (D).
“He hand-picked and selected folks he wanted in those chambers that were not necessarily Republican leadership’s picks,” Rayner-Goolsby said. “Folks who would have been more moderate... are now going to possibly vote with him. There’s this belief that he actually may win the Republican nomination, so people want to be close to power.”
DeSantis was quiet on abortion ahead of the midterms, a surprising move for a politician who has constantly played to his religious base. But DeSantis, like many other Republicans this election season, realized abortion restrictions aren’t popular on the campaign trail. And unlike Trump, DeSantis is a calculated and cunning politician.
“Republicans know that [abortion] is not a good issue for them,” Book said. “People have said Donald Trump is like Jason: He goes through with a chainsaw and he kills everybody there. Ron DeSantis is like Hannibal Lecter: He’s going to enjoy you with a glass of Chianti. He’s very, very methodical and he’s very, very good at what he does.”
“That’s what’s happening here,” she added. “He knew that this was not a good issue in the election. That’s why they didn’t focus on it, that’s why they didn’t talk about it.”
But opponents of abortion rights in Florida aren’t happy with Republicans’ reluctance to act. Andrew Shirvell, founder of Florida Voice for the Unborn, rallied 150 advocates against abortion rights to demonstrate inside the state Capitol during the organizational session where Book was sworn in as Senate minority leader. Shirvell told HuffPost his organization wants to set the tone that Republicans need to introduce restrictions on abortion immediately.
It seems “disingenuous” for Passidomo to mention a 12-week abortion ban with exceptions, Shirvell said, adding that it would be a “nonstarter” for anti-choice organizations like his if Republicans went ahead with such a bill.
“I was led to believe that we were going to be having the special legislative session by the end of the year, and that it would be specifically dedicated to further abortion prohibitions ― whether it’s at six weeks or at conception ― but the job would be done by the end of 2022,” said Shirvell, who told HuffPost he had this impression after meeting with DeSantis’ chief of staff after the Supreme Court decision leaked in May.
The ultimate goal for Shirvell and Voice for the Unborn is a total abortion ban with no exceptions.
“There’s no reason to wait until May,” said Shirvell, noting that DeSantis could amend this month’s special legislative session on Hurricane Ian relief funds to focus on abortion. “They could get it done tomorrow if they wanted to. It’s just they need political courage, not cowardice. So far, we’ve really just seen a lot of cowardice on their part.”
While Republicans quietly drag their feet, Democrats are gearing up to fight ― even if they know the battle may be futile.
“Fighting back is going to be tough. We’re going to have to be more strategic ... I’m concerned that it’s not going to make a real difference,” Book said. “But we’re going to continue to do the work that people sent us to Tallahassee to do.”