Pro-choice activists hold a vigil outside the U.S. Supreme Court on January 23, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty

Florida shields pages from abortion debate

The list of states working on new reproductive-rights restrictions got a little longer last week, when state lawmakers in Florida advanced a couple of new measures of their own.
Election-year politics and an assertive Republican majority passed two bills in the Florida House on Friday that are certain to score points with a conservative base.
One bill would tighten the state’s already restrictive abortion laws. A second would add penalties to anyone convicted of a crime if the act harms a fetus. Similar legislation passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate when abortion-rights advocates argued it was intended to create “personhood” rights for fetuses.
As expected, the bills passed the state House late last week with members voting largely along party lines.
Under the proposed abortion restrictions, Floridians are already prohibited from terminating a pregnancy after 24 weeks, but this new measure would require doctors to conduct an exam and determine whether a fetus is sustainable outside the womb “through standard medical measures.” In effect, the intention is to move the legal line from 24 weeks to 20 weeks.
As for the other bill, proponents cited a recent incident in which a Tampa Bay woman was tricked by an ex-boyfriend into taking pills that caused her to miscarry in order to justify new legislation. Democratic state Rep. Elaine Schwartz asked, “How are you going to know that the miscarriage was caused by some event, even months ago? This is much too broad. It’s unenforceable and it’s part of a war on women.”
Nevertheless, this argument did not carry the day and the issue now goes to the state Senate.
But what struck me as especially interesting was, of all things, what lawmakers did with the legislative pages during the debate.
Like most legislative bodies in the U.S., Florida has a page program – young students who want to learn more about government and lawmaking help members by delivering messages and running errands.
But when it came time to debate new reproductive-rights restrictions, the pages were shielded – they were kept outside because the content of the debate was deemed unacceptable for minors.
The unusual “precaution” was noted by members of the Capitol press corps who attended the House session yesterday. The Legislature is considering a bill that would effectively ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, as well as a “crimes against the unborn” measure to put stiffer penalties on criminals who assault pregnant women leading to the death of their fetus.
The House pages and messengers, who have served the state’s legislators since at least 1865, are all students who spend a week running errands for lawmakers and learning the business of state government. But Wednesday they were led off the floor, presumably so they couldn’t be tainted by that business of government.
It’s reminiscent of the time Florida Republicans were outraged by a Democratic lawmaker who used the word “uterus” on the legislative floor. (A House Republican spokesperson explained at the time that the GOP leadership “believes it is important for all members to be mindful of and respectful to visitors and guests, particularly the young pages and messengers who are seated in the chamber during debates.”)
But here’s the real punch line: after the vote, the pages were allowed to return to the floor for the next debate. The topic? Guns.
Teenagers’ ears must be protected from talk about sexual health, but there are no comparable concerns about firearms. Or as Hunter put it, “So to sum up, ‘Bleeding chest wound’: Acceptable. ‘Uterus’: Right Out.”