St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Vote on abortion notice is likely

Lawmakers want a constitutional amendment, but first they have to deal with medical malpractice.

LUCY MORGAN
Published July 15, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Florida voters will likely decide whether parents must be notified before their pregnant daughters seek an abortion, legislative leaders said Monday.

Senate President Jim King said lawmakers are certain to approve a constitutional amendment in the wake of last week's Florida Supreme Court decision striking down a state law requiring notice. And he thinks "an overwhelming number" of Florida voters would approve it.

The big question is when lawmakers consider the measure. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd wants it done now, when lawmakers are in special session. But King and Gov. Jeb Bush want more progress on the issue that brought them here: skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance.

Last week's decision by the court was the second time in recent years that the court invoked Florida's constitutional right to privacy in overturning an attempt by lawmakers to require notice or consent for abortions by minors.

The court first struck down a parental consent law in 1989. The decision sparked an enormous controversy and a special legislative session called by then-Gov. Bob Martinez. But the Democrat-controlled Legislature would not reinstate the law.

When Republicans took control of the Legislature in 1996, lawmakers passed bills that were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. After Republican Bush took office in 1999, lawmakers passed a measure that he signed into law. That was the one the court overturned.

The Supreme Court court has been harshly critical of legislative attempts to impose restrictions on abortion, and last week accused lawmakers of acting too hastily when they passed the most recent law. The court also accused legislators of being inconsistent in developing public policy.

With two laws having been overturned, some lawmakers and Bush believe a constitutional amendment is the only way to get parental notice on the books.

"It seems reasonable to me that if you have to have parental consent to have a child's ears pierced, it would fly in the face of logic to say you wouldn't have to notify parents to get an abortion," King said. Lawmakers also will pass a bill to deal with the problems encountered when a young woman is pregnant by her father or guardian, King said.

But it's unclear when lawmakers, who already are embroiled in controversy over medical malpractice insurance, will take up the abortion issue.

A spokeswoman for Bush said the governor wants to see a new law and a constitutional amendment, but won't add it to the legislative agenda this week unless lawmakers reach agreement on medical malpractice.

Byrd wants it on the agenda this week, but King said the session already is precarious enough with medical malpractice. This is the second special session the Legislature has held on the issue after failing to reach an agreement during the regular session that ended May 2. And the two chambers are still far apart.

The abortion issue could wait until lawmakers return for their regular session in March, King said. That would still allow enough time to put the measure before voters in November 2004.

"I'm willing to consider doing it now, but it would take committee meetings and time is not our friend," King said.

This week's session is scheduled to end Wednesday, but might be extended through Friday if lawmakers are close to reaching agreement, King said.

Senate Rules Chairman Tom Lee said some people want to add abortion to the agenda to divert attention from the bad publicity the medical malpractice fight has brought to Republicans over the past week.

"I'd like to believe there have been lessons learned about how to handle the Legislature," Lee said of attacks Bush has made on him and other Republican senators who disagreed with his insistence on a $250,000 cap on damages for pain and suffering.

The abortion measure also would allow conservative Republicans to make political points with the GOP base, Lee said.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.