Florida Republican lawmakers axe ‘unborn child’ bill after Alabama IVF ruling

Florida Republicans have decided to hold off on a bill in the state’s Senate which would have allowed civil lawsuits over the wrongful death of a foetus, appearing to bow to pressure following Alabama’s controversial supreme court ruling that frozen embryos could be considered children.

The bill, titled Civil Liability for the Wrongful Death of an Unborn Child”, was designed to allow parents to receive financial damages in some circumstances when a foetus has died.

On Monday, however, state senators decided to pause Senate Bill 476’s passage with just a few weeks left of the current legislative period.

Warnings had been getting louder over what passing the bill would mean: that a foetus could be defined as a person from the moment of conception and that this could make things complicated for doctors and families.

That definition has been talked about a lot in recent weeks, following the Alabama supreme court ruling which included this, leading to a halting of IVF treatment in that state.

Florida State Democrat Party leader Lauren Brook has been one of the key voices raising concerns about the Sunshine State bill, saying IVF was at risk there as a result.

“Legally designating a foetus as a person with rights, including the right to life from the moment of conception diminishes the rights of women and mothers, opening the door for further restriction on abortion and reproductive medicines like IVF,” Ms Brook said in a post on X. “Thankfully, it appears personhood will not be the law of the land in our state.”

One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Erin Grall, said she wanted to make sure that the policy was right.

“Although I have worked diligently to respond to questions and concerns, I understand there is still work that needs to be done,” Ms Grall said in a statement released to The New York Times.

Ms Grall did not immediately respond to a request for further comment from The Independent.

For pro-choice groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the bill would have gone too far in a state which has already tried to introduce an abortion ban at six weeks.

The group’s legislative director for Florida said that the bill was not about helping grieving families, as current state law already allows for damages to be collected should a pregnancy be terminated because of “the wrongful acts of another”.

“What this bill does, that current law doesn’t do, is subject healthcare providers to harassing litigation by domestic abusers, rapists, and anyone else who impregnates someone else from the moment of conception,” ACLU Florida’s Kara Gross said. “It also opens the door to the types of harassing litigation we are seeing in Texas, where an abusive ex-husband is suing the best friends of his ex-wife because they supported her in accessing an abortion.

“This bill would have a chilling effect on doctors providing necessary health care, on patients seeking the care they need, and on family members and friends who support their loved one seeking access to abortion care.”

SB 476 has been so divisive that even an anti-abortion group has supported the pause in its passage because it argues the legislation has been watered down.

“Unfortunately, this well-meaning legislation has gotten worse with each committee stop in the Senate,” the group’s Executive Director Andrew Shirvell said in a statement.

“On Friday, February 23rd, Senator Grall was forced to file an unnecessary amendment to the bill that would have allegedly ‘clarified’ that parents cannot collect civil damages for the death of their unborn child if the death came about due to a legal abortion done ‘with the applicable standards of care’.

“Such a special carve-out for abortionists would not only be immoral, but it would make it harder for the abortion industry to be held civilly accountable.”

Another issue arising from bills such as the one in Florida is the impact on IVF treatment. If a fertilised embryo can be considered a foetus, what happens if that embryo doesn’t make it or is frozen and not used?

In 2022, the advocacy group Pregnancy Justice said that the overturning of Roe v Wade had allowed the idea of foetal personhood to become mainstream when for many years it was ignored by politicians and justices alike.

One of the reasons personhood legislation had been voted down was concern about access to IVF - something families across the political spectrum want access to.

For Floridians, it seems that, unlike in Alabama, the threat to accessing that treatment might have ebbed for now, with the chance of the bill passing during the current legislative session looking slim.

Democrat Representative Anna Eskamani said in a statement that SB 476 was not a bill that Florida needs.

“We should be expanding access to care - not limiting it,” she said on X. “I am glad to see this bill temporarily postponed and hopeful that it will not be heard on the House or Senate Floor.”

Meanwhile, the state’s Supreme Court is examining the constitutionality of banning abortion after 15 weeks, which could allow the on-hold six-week ban to pass. Residents are also waiting to hear if they can vote on enshrining abortion rights in the state’s constitution this November.