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After Alabama, Florida is set to follow suit with its own fetal personhood bill

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Last month's decision by the Alabama Supreme Court regarding frozen embryos is having a ripple effect in Florida. Lawmakers in the Sunshine State were considering legislation that would have let parents sue for the emotional distress from the loss of a pregnancy. But now, Regan McCarthy of member station WFSU reports the bill's sponsor has put that effort on pause.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Yes on 4. Yes on 4. Let the voters vote. Let the voters vote.

REGAN MCCARTHY, BYLINE: On the steps of the Florida Supreme Court in early February, advocates both for and against abortion access are chanting, waving signs and praying.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Ave Maria.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us...

MCCARTHY: The justices had just heard arguments over the ballot language for a proposed state constitutional amendment that would explicitly protect access to abortion. State House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell says the chief justice brought up a surprising question.

FENTRICE DRISKELL: The chief justice really seemed to be trained on trying to understand what the effects of this ballot initiative would be on other areas of the law if it were to pass.

MCCARTHY: Specifically, Chief Justice Carlos Muniz wanted to know how the amendment might interact with Article 1 of Florida's Constitution, which grants, quote, "all natural persons" the inalienable right to life.

CARLOS MUNIZ: I don't know that I could kind of affirmatively say that the term, you know, natural person doesn't, as a matter of just sort of ordinary meaning, include the unborn.

MCCARTHY: This isn't the first time Muniz has made similar comments.

MARY ZIEGLER: Chief Justice Muniz is all but, like, writing up an engraved invitation to make this argument to the Florida Supreme Court.

MCCARTHY: Mary Ziegler is a law professor at UC Davis. She says it remains to be seen whether Muniz's questions about fetal personhood will impact how the court rules on the pending state amendment to protect abortion access. But she says...

ZIEGLER: This question of fetal personhood isn't going anywhere.

MCCARTHY: Ziegler says for decades, the anti-abortion movement has been working to put laws on the books across the country that extend rights to fetuses, like fetal homicide, wrongful death and child support during pregnancy.

ZIEGLER: The idea was to go to sympathetic judges, like those on the Florida state Supreme Court, and say, isn't it weird that a fetus isn't a rights holder for the purposes of the state constitution or the purposes of abortion law but is in all these other contexts?

MCCARTHY: Ziegler says if states like Alabama and Florida recognize fetuses as people in their laws and constitutions, that helps set the dominoes for an argument on the national level.

ZIEGLER: The more states pass laws recognizing a fetus as a rights holder in a variety of contexts, the more you're going to see the anti-abortion movement wanting to return to the U.S. Supreme Court and saying, well, actually, under the 14th Amendment of the federal Constitution, a fetus is also a rights holder.

MCCARTHY: Ziegler says that could potentially cut off access to abortion nationwide, as opposed to abortion being left up to the states after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Florida Republican lawmakers recently considered a bill that would've let parents collect damages in civil suits for the loss of a pregnancy. While the bill's sponsor said the measure had nothing to do with abortion, advocates on both sides of the issue disagreed.

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ANDREW SHIRVELL: As the cliche goes, I'm going to say the quiet part out loud.

MCCARTHY: Andrew Shirvell is founder of the group Florida Voice for the Unborn.

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SHIRVELL: It's another reaffirmation that unborn children should be considered nothing less than human persons under our state laws and our state constitution.

MCCARTHY: Opponents worry the measure could cut off access to reproductive health care, including abortion and IVF, even though the measure included a definition for the term unborn child that specified it must be in the womb. Shortly after the Alabama ruling, the sponsor of Florida's bill said she wanted more time to be sure lawmakers, quote, "got the policy right." Florida state Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book hopes new attention on such legislation could spell the end for the push for fetal personhood.

LAUREN BOOK: People across the country are talking about it. People are finally looking at it. And at the end of the day, I think that the Republicans across the country realize this is a problem. This isn't something that they should be doing.

MCCARTHY: But already, Republican legislative leaders here in Florida plan to revisit the issue next year. For NPR News, I'm Regan McCarthy in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.