Pro-life leaders say governor is missing a golden opportunity to stop abortions in Florida amid the coronavirus economic shutdown.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking not-so-friendly fire from pro-life activists demanding that he close abortion clinics.
“I don’t want to get into it with the governor, but, quite frankly, he should have shut down the abortion centers immediately,” said Annie Marie Delgado, founder of Trump Team 2020 Florida. “It is not to target abortion clinics alone, but there are many who need cancer surgery and things like that. That’s essential ... abortion is an elective.”
To be sure, DeSantis is clearly a pro-life Republican. But pro-life leaders in the Trump base and in conservative corners of the state say he is wasting a golden opportunity to stop abortions in Florida amid the coronavirus economic shutdown.
Pro-life activists note the governor has issued 13 executive orders in response to the growing threat from the coronavirus outbreak. Those have suspended life as Floridians knew it, from businesses to beaches. And, on March 20, he issued an order prohibiting nonessential surgeries.
As for measures specifically targeting abortions, DeSantis’ office said none of the coronavirus-related executive orders prohibit the procedure, and that “mandatory suspension of all nonessential surgeries is intended to save medical equipment and supplies for the purpose of dealing with the public health emergency.”
The governor’s spokeswoman said public health decisions in the era of a pandemic are guided by health care professionals.
“The decision regarding what is essential and nonessential surgery is determined by the hospital and the physician who are entrusted to execute this Executive Order in a faithful and honest manner,” said Helen Aguirre Ferre, director of communications for DeSantis in an email to the Palm Beach Post.
A pro-choice activist said that is the correct public policy position.
“Abortion is essential medical care,” said Katherine Ragsdale, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation. “It cannot be unduly delayed without extraordinary consequences for everyone involved. It is just unconscionable that anti-choice advocates would take advantage of a pandemic to try to deny women their constitutional right to access to abortion care.”
Delgado, a former Palm Beach Gardens councilwoman, disagrees. And she is not alone among pro-life activists. They say they want abortions to be officially delineated as non-essential procedures. If the governor were to do so, abortion services statewide would come to an immediate halt.
Palm Beach County resident Willy Guardiola, an abortion opponent, on Monday held a conference call with other pro-life activists. Guardiola said he believes the governor’s existing orders provide enough legal firepower to close abortion clinics.
The call was a follow-up to a March 26 email Guardiola sent DeSantis, Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuņez, in which Guardiola accused the state GOP of being lax on pro-life legislation. Guardiola’s letter had a clearly demanding tone insisting that Florida government officials have at their disposal “strict orders to close down ALL abortion clinics. It is NOT a suggestion. It's an Order!”
A similar push among pro-life organizations is taking place in other states. Mississippi, Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma have moved to block abortions as nonessential surgeries that should be postponed or canceled while the states fight coronavirus.
Judges, however, have disagreed. Earlier this week, judges in Ohio and Texas issued orders allowing abortion clinics in those states to remain open — decisions praised by pro-choice advocates.
Pro-choice advocates say that early-term abortions, which make up the bulk of those performed, are induced by medication, requiring no surgical supplies at all. They say medical facilities that offer abortions typically do so in addition to other treatments and screenings, and closing clinics would deprive women access to vital care.
“The radical right has been working for decades to end the legal right to abortion — no matter the cost — and now they are using COVID-19 to achieve that goal,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Allowing ideology to trump science in this moment imperils everyone and sets a terrifying precedent as we face this national crisis.”
Florida pro-life advocates are emboldened, however, given recent successes in curtailing abortion rights. In early March, Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bill requiring girls under the age of 18 to obtain parental consent for an abortion. Still on the table is a “fetal heartbeat” bill, which would prohibit abortions after about six weeks, dramatically restricting, if not ending, most abortions.
Despite the governor’s assertions, some believe they have enough legal standing to seek the closure of clinics in Florida
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson and State Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, said the executive order prohibiting nonessential surgeries absolutely includes abortions. And they are upset that clinics, including a particular one in Escambia County, remain open.
Last week, Hill contacted the Escambia County Sheriff’s office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Agency for Health Care Administration for help in closing the clinic, all to no avail, he said.
“When I called the sheriff's office and informed them that abortions were still being performed, they stated that they didn’t have the authority to stop them,” said Hill, a sponsor of the “fetal heartbeat bill.”
Now, citing an executive order issued Friday that he said gives local law enforcement the authority to shut down local clinics, Hill and Grover have again called on their local sheriff to close the clinic.
But the state said that Friday’s order, which does give local law enforcement additional powers, does not authorize them to shut down abortion clinics. And, to the chagrin of Hill and other pro-life advocates, the determination of “essential” remains in the hands of medical personnel.
“If you just leave it up to an individual doctor of what is essential and what is not, you run into a situation where an abortionist is deciding that killing a newborn is essential, and I don’t see how that is essential at all,” Hill said.
And it’s not only the executive order prohibiting nonessential surgeries that Hill says the Pensacola clinic is violating — he says they are violating social distancing protocol.
“Based on the number of vehicles in the parking lot, well over 15 people are in that clinic at one time,” he said. “It’s become more a concern here in Escambia County because, as the virus has taken hold, it seems that the traffic has increased dramatically at this clinic.”
Pro-choice advocates say it is protesters like Hill causing the problems.
“They’ve been ignoring those orders and gathering in large numbers and getting in the face of providers and people going into clinics,” Ragsdale said. “It’s not only harassment, it’s all endangering public health.”
That said, with executive orders shutting down more and more Florida businesses being handed down virtually every few days, pro-lifers say it is time for DeSantis to step up.
“I think a stronger position from the governor is essential right now,” says Delgado. “There is not a doctor, in my opinion, saying this is essential unless it’s for the safety and the welfare of the mother being in jeopardy. It’s just not essential.”
Pro-choice advocates say they hope DeSantis makes decisions based on science, not politics.
“No legitimate scientific body, including the World Health Organization that has been guiding successful coronavirus response programs in other countries, recommends these restrictions,” Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, a national women’s organization said in a statement. “Abortion access is critical at all times, but especially during a pandemic, when people's health and economic futures are in jeopardy.”
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.