The abortion wars continue: Amendment Six

It's not just a threat to abortion rights, say opponents, but to privacy.

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click to enlarge "I'm amazed we have to fight this battle again," said the woman carrying this sign during an April 28 protest in St. Petersburg. - Photo by Arielle Stevenson
Photo by Arielle Stevenson
"I'm amazed we have to fight this battle again," said the woman carrying this sign during an April 28 protest in St. Petersburg.

A wire hanger covered in fake blood is attached to a sign reading “Never Again.” It is April 28, a national day of protest.

“I had a sign like this back in the 1980s,” says the woman holding the sign. “I’m amazed we have to fight this battle again.”

Men and women, young and old, are holding signs and chanting along Park Street in St. Petersburg. They say there is a war on women, and they may be right.

Floridian women looking to terminate a pregnancy, a right provided to them by Roe v. Wade, may find things just got a lot more complicated. A ban on federal funding of abortion already exists, but an amendment to be voted upon in November would make such a ban a permanent part of the Florida constitution, the only exceptions being cases involving rape, incest or if the woman’s life is in danger. The second part of the amendment seems to its opponents to be more insidious still; it undermines a fundamental right to privacy which the Florida Supreme Court had previously reinforced.

Florida has already blocked abortion on numerous fronts. As if simply making the decision to abort a pregnancy isn’t hard enough, women in Florida have to submit to an ultrasound of the fetus. In March, the Florida House passed a bill requiring doctors to describe fetal pain to women before performing an abortion past 20 weeks. The bill passed with 78 yeas and 33 nays. (It is illegal to perform an abortion in Florida past 24 weeks.)

At least one abortion restriction had been relaxed in recent years. At one time, minors were required to get permission from their parents to go through with an abortion, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned that legislation on the basis that it was unconstitutional. A compromise was reached; minors seeking an abortion don’t need parental permission anymore, but they still have to tell them.

But if Amendment 6 were to pass, even that right would be in jeopardy.

The state of Florida has one of the most comprehensive privacy clauses in the country, more comprehensive even than that of the U.S. Constitution. In the 1980s, a Democratic Florida legislature amended the state constitution to guarantee every person “the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life.” Article 1 Section 23 guarantees that private health decisions are to take place without the intrusion of the government. Florida is one of only 10 states with such privacy rights.

But Amendment 6 could alter that language, and what is at stake depends entirely on what side you’re on. One side says that without the amendment, parents have virtually no power to control their children’s health decisions. On the other hand, it means women are losing their power to make decisions over their bodies in private.

A 79-34 majority in the House and a 27-12 majority in the Senate voted to place Amendment 6 on the 2012 ballot.

Over the last 15 years, Wendy Grassi has worked as the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood in southwest and central Florida.

“There is an incredible war on women, and it’s the worst it’s been in a generation,” says Grassi, explaining that over 1,000 anti-choice bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country last year.

“Ever since the 2010 elections, so many conservatives won across the Congress and state Legislatures,” Grassi says. “They are falling all over themselves trying to introduce the most aggressive anti-choice legislation.”

Federal law already prohibits funding for abortions using tax dollars except under extreme circumstances. Amendment 6 only reiterates that under state terms, Grassi said.

The meat of the matter is in the second part, concerning privacy rights.

“The second part of the law allows the passage of more restrictive laws in the future,” says Grassi. “Should Roe v. Wade ever be overturned, it would… allow the Florida legislature to ban abortion.”

Republican Representative Dennis Baxley and Republican Senator Anitere Flores sponsored the bill. Flores cites a responsibility to defend the rights of “the unborn.”

“I believe that abortion services are not an essential component of health care,” says Flores. “Therefore, our tax dollars should not be used to fund such services.”

Tampa House Democrat Janet Cruz voted no on Amendment 6.

“I think it’s another effort to make it more challenging for a woman to exercise her right to choose to have an abortion,” Cruz says.

She worries that those who need services the most are the ones being singled out by the legislation.

“I think it especially targets minority women who are most likely to use public funding for abortion,” she points out.

But Flores believes that the most vulnerable are being targeted without the bill.

“We have the responsibility to defend the rights of the most vulnerable in our society, the unborn,” Flores says. “And the duty to respect the wishes of Floridians who do not want state taxes funding abortion services.”

Leading the charge on the citizen initiative is Randy Armstrong and the “Say Yes on 6” campaign. Armstrong doesn’t think minors need a right to privacy when it comes to abortion.

“Since only notification is required, meaning the parent had no choice in their child’s decision, parents still hold the responsibility to pay for health care needs should their minor child experience side effects or require hospitalization as a result of an abortion,” Armstrong says.

He adds that a change to current parental consent law is part of the amendment’s goal.

“When passed, this amendment will open a way for elected officials to pass future legislation requiring parental consent for minors seeking an abortion,” Armstrong says.

But Erin Jensen, field coordinator for the ACLU of Tampa’s Vote No Committee, says the language of the amendment doesn’t state the true purpose clearly.

“Language on amendments is confusing, and is intentionally written in a confusing manner,” she says. “The public needs to be aware of the amendment and what it will actually do.”

Tampa Bay Times columnist Robyn Blumner called the state’s current privacy rights “an insurance policy” and wrote that “even if Roe were overturned, Florida’s constitutional right to privacy would protect women from untoward government intrusion.”

Armstrong argues that the “right to privacy” clause itself is what needs protection.

The amendment, he claims, “would protect the ‘right of privacy’ clause in our Florida constitution from being stretched beyond its original intent to justify even broader rights to abortion than those in the U.S. Constitution.”

If the amendment passes, Blumner argues that the state constitution will have one set of privacy rights for men and another lesser form for women. But Senate sponsor Anitere Flores believes it would better align the state with the federal constitution.

“We must ensure that our state courts apply the rule of law consistent with the United States Constitution,” Senator Anitere Flores said.

Two local groups, “Nix Six” and “I am Choice,” are preparing for November’s battle. They represent two distinctly different arenas in the realm of women’s rights.

Nix Six is being spearheaded by the National Organization for Women (NOW). B J Star, a Dunedin attorney and president of West Pinellas NOW, started the Nix Six campaign last summer. She joined NOW in 1975 when she was a police officer.

“I was facing differential treatment from superior officers and the union wasn’t sympathetic back then,” Star remembers. “So I went to law school so I would never have to have someone else explain the law to me. I will explain it to them now.”

Ayele Hunt started the “I am Choice” campaign in late April. Eleven years after she started fighting for women’s rights, she’s ready to take on the Sunshine State’s Amendment 6 proponents.

“I am Choice” is aimed at educating and involving younger women in the fight to maintain rights gained before their time. “Literally, the rights the women’s movement gained in the ’80s are being taken away,” Hunt says. “Once they have been taken by a Constitutional amendment, as Amendment Six, the only way to regain the rights is to get a future legislature who supports women’s rights to introduce new legislation.”

Star speaks highly of Hunt’s efforts and recognizes that young women were born into a world where many rights were already in place.

A campaign headquarters in downtown St. Petersburg opens on June 1. “Nix Six” and “I am Choice” will work together on many fronts to educate the public before November.

According to Hunt, the legislation defines the use of public funds to include public employees’ private health insurance coverage.

“Meaning if you are a public employee, nurse in a public hospital or a police officer, Amendment 6 removes coverage for reproductive health care beyond end of pregnancy procedures,” Hunt said.

Erin Jensen, field coordinator at the ACLU of Tampa’s Vote No committee, agrees.

“The language of the amendment specifically targets anyone working in the public sector regarding health benefits,” Jensen said.

Proponents of the legislation often raise an alarm about footing the bill for someone else’s abortion.

“This is not a call to deny access to abortion for anyone, but simply to say that a private act shouldn’t be a public expense — that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to foot the bill for abortion in Florida,” Armstrong says.

Asked whether women’s privacy rights would be affected, Armstrong answers, “A woman’s right to privacy will not be affected.”

Star isn’t buying that response.

“The very idea that Amendment 6 won’t limit a woman’s right to privacy is ludicrous at best — and cruel,” she responds. “The Republicans are attempting to undo a fundamental right granted by Florida voters in 1980 to the detriment of all the citizens in our great state.”

Florida’s constitution is no stranger to amendments. The U.S Constitution has been amended only 17 times in over 200 years. During the last three election cycles, Florida amended its constitution 15 times. Whatever its pros and cons, one thing is clear: Amendment Six will need support from two-thirds of Florida’s registered voters to pass when it appears on the ballot on Nov. 6.

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