Legislators want pregnant girls reported

They say it's to counter abuse, but others fear it would scare teens away from getting help.

Published March 7, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Health care professionals would be required to call police if they know or suspect a patient 15 or younger is pregnant, under a bill filed recently in the House and Senate.

In addition, doctors who perform abortions on such girls would be required to collect a DNA sample from the fetus and send it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

State Sen. Ronda Storms, a Brandon Republican, has joined forces with a top House Republican, Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, on the bill, which aims to crack down on underage sexual abuse by having health care professionals assume pregnant teens are crime victims.

Doctors and nurses at abortion clinics, hospitals or even counseling agencies would have to report underage pregnancies within 24 hours of knowing about such a pregnancy or risk losing their state license.

The report would trigger a criminal investigation examining whether the girl was a victim of a crime, such as statutory rape, which can include sex between two minors who are under 16.

"When you have people who are perpetrating crimes, oftentimes young girls can get pregnant from that. And if family members are coercing that individual to cover that crime, then they get rid of the evidence of the crime," said Storms, who as an attorney once represented a woman who was sexually abused from age 5 to 15. "This is a protection for young girls who are being coerced or otherwise being exploited."

Critics said the bill would dissuade pregnant minors from seeking medical care or counseling.

"If a 15-year-old is having consensual sex with her 15-year-old boyfriend and gets pregnant and she knows if she goes to a health care provider that the possible consequence is that her 15-year-old boyfriend could be thrown in jail, what's the likelihood she'll seek any care?" asked Lillian Tamayo of the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood.

It's the second bill that Storms has filed this Legislative session that could make it more difficult for minors seeking an abortion.

She filed a bill that more narrowly defines the judicial waiver that allows a judge to grant some girls the right to get an abortion without telling their parents.

When asked about the bill's effect on girls' ability to get abortions, both Storms and Baxley said the bill is intended to target sexual abuse of minors.

But Baxley added, "It doesn't make me unhappy that a few more children may live."

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement does not track statutory rape cases, spokesman Phil Kiracofe said.

A 2000 FBI report based on information from 21 states (not including Florida) determined three of 10 statutory rape offenders are girlfriends or boyfriends, and six in 10 were acquaintances of their victims. Arrests occurred in 42 percent of the statutory rape incidents. About 7 percent of the offenders were reported as family members of the victims.

The age of consent in Florida is 18, but laws do permit consensual sex between people ages 16 to 23.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida called the Baxley-Storms bill dangerous for the health and safety of women. He also wondered about the burden it would put on law enforcement to "police sexual activity" among teenagers.

Baxley said he believed the bill would have support in the House. But it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where several Republicans said they have concerns about the bill.

Sen. Mike Fasano said he was concerned about the broad wording that required health professionals to alert law enforcement if they "reasonably should know" that a child is pregnant.

"What if a young lady is going to get information or to get direction, are we going to step over into their personal lives?" said Fasano of New Port Richey. "I'm a big believer in protecting our children. But I also believe in privacy."

The bill would lift some restrictions that protect doctor-patient confidentiality.