Florida Politics

The abortion debate is on again. These two lawmakers are in the middle of the fight.

How abortion access would vary without Roe v. Wade

Different states have different laws in place that will take effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
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Different states have different laws in place that will take effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Turn out of the 11th floor elevator bank in the Florida State Capitol and the magenta carpet leads to the offices of two lawmakers who are running out of time.

By this April morning, the year’s legislative session has already ticked halfway past. Stalled bills teeter toward failure.

In suite 1102, by the door with the framed “feminism” poster, freshman Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani knows her pro-choice proposal never had a chance.

Across the hall, in 1101, Republican Rep. Mike Hill tries not to get frustrated that his bill isn’t gaining traction, either. He’s been following the same ban he proposed as it sweeps through Georgia, Ohio, Mississippi, outlawing abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks. He reminds himself to trust in God’s timing.

In hallways and on the House floor, Hill and Eskamani don’t often speak. Abortion has long been an uneasy standoff in Florida, where a privacy clause in the state’s Constitution has fended off many of the restrictions that have shuttered clinics in other states.

But politicians on both sides sense the turning tide, that the newly conservative U.S. Supreme Court may chip away at the right to terminate pregnancies or send the issue back to the states to decide, one by one.

Abortion foes across the country, after years of pushing incremental constraints, have launched a barrage of severe restrictions, some designed deliberately to dismantle precedent.

In Florida, a single abortion bill — on parental consent — creeps forward this year, but it has the potential to open the floodgates for many more. Hill and Eskamani are watching, and they can feel the ground moving.

A skirmish over parental consent

Faded billboards dot the scrubby edges of Interstate 10 west toward the capital. Blue-eyed babies plead, “At 18 Days Our Hearts Are Beating!” Fetuses curl in wombs that look like the insides of eyelids.

New billboards flash orange against the Florida pine: “ABORTION IS HEALTH CARE.”

All roads lead to Tallahassee, to windowless committee halls and the white dome of the Florida Supreme Court across from the Capitol, where three new justices give conservatives an overwhelming dominance. If abortion rights contract in Florida, the decision will likely happen here.

For years, Florida has been an outlier, a haven for abortion seekers in a more hostile South. That’s because the state Constitution protects “from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life.”

In 1989, for instance, the state Supreme Court struck down an attempt to make minors get parental consent for abortions: “We can conceive of few more personal or private decisions concerning one’s body that one can make in the course of a lifetime.”

Florida lawmakers knew abortion limits would tee up costly court battles most likely doomed to fail.

But the single abortion bill advancing this year, an overhaul of the bill that fell three decades ago, tackles the privacy clause head-on. The House has been receptive, the Senate lukewarm, but advocates on both sides say this is a preview of what’s to come.

Ends of the political spectrum

Eskamani and Hill lie toward the edges of their parties, one a proud progressive and the other the founder of the Northwest Florida Tea Party. Both have had marginal success getting bills to move. Both made waves in their campaigns — Hill for his viral pitch to move Trump’s oft-vandalized Hollywood star to Pensacola; Eskamani for asking her rally crowds, “You see the s--t we put up with?”

They both grew up working class; both are people of color. Eskamani is the daughter of Iranian immigrants; Hill, one of just two black Republican lawmakers in Florida — but he hates to be grouped into anything with a hyphen. Call him an American, he says.

They’re on two committees together, and though Hill can’t remember agreeing with Eskamani on a single thing, he respects the genuine beliefs that fuel her. She finds him kind and collegial.

Both tweet often, especially about abortion. Eskamani mixes threads on reproductive health and progressive immigration policy with snappy clapbacks to the GOP, like a Florida version of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

Hill sticks to the MAGA-style formula, decrying the “demonic Muslim horde” and retweeting all-caps posts about liberal lunacy and abortion as murder.

Take @AnnaForFlorida, in early April, in a back-and-forth with a Republican: “Access to a safe & legal abortion can’t be compared to cable TV. 1 in 4 women have had an abortion in this country— the # is on the decline & that’s due to access to birth control & sex-ed.”

Or @Mikehillfl in early April, retweeting a popular pro-Trump account that posted: “This powerful video is a MUST WATCH! The only person who doesn’t get a choice in an abortion is the poor baby who’s butchered alive!”

The Representative from Pensacola

Outside Hill’s office, a printout sits on his aide’s desk. It’s an invitation to a showing of “Unplanned,” about a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned pro-lifer. Tagline: “What she saw changed everything.”

Inside, there’s a blue couch, beige walls, white lilies. His wide desk is bare but for some papers and a small stack of books, including one that promises “The Biblical Path to Pro-Life Victory in the 21st Century” and a biography of the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Hill has only read the foreword, but as a fellow devotee of the Constitution, he admired it.

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Rep. Mike Hill listens during legislative session at the Florida State Capitol on April 3, 2019, in Tallahassee. Monica Herndon Tampa Bay Times

Hill, 60, represents Pensacola, as far west as the Panhandle goes. This session, his second full term, he pushed to protect Confederate and veteran memorials but found little support.

His heartbeat ban, despite its long roster of co-sponsors and likely support from the governor, might have been too extreme for Florida, or not strategic enough. But he wonders: What else is he supposed to do as an Evangelical?

“I have no choice but to run this,” he says, holding his broad hands open, almost helpless.

He remembers being 13 and bored with only the Armed Forces Network to watch on the Italian base where his dad was stationed. Out of options, he picked up the Good News Bible, a leftover from Sunday school in the States. Those classes had never made sense. You’re telling me Jesus is the lamb but also the shepherd?

He dove into Matthew.

He thought, “I’ve never read anything like that.”

It was ninth grade, 1972, and Hill started carrying the Good News everywhere, even as classmates yelled, “Mike Hill is a Jesus freak!” Later, as he took the ACT that could get him into his dream school, he prayed with each bubble, “Lord, please.”

His first night off the bus at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he got his head shaved. Officers screamed at him. He’d come craving the order his house of nine siblings lacked, but now he wondered what he had done.

Those were the years that his conviction in God wavered. The Bible became just another book.

As for abortion, he thought, let a woman choose.

It was the woman he’d marry who brought him back to church. And it was the era of Reaganomics, and his night MBA classes, that led him to register as a Republican.

In the mid-1980s, early in his wife’s first pregnancy, she miscarried.

“That quickly, she had a bond with that baby,” Hill says. Her grief felt like an epiphany to him. So did the sight of a school bus of kids and the want that filled him. He and his wife grieved together as she miscarried again.

Around that time, a Christian radio station debuted in Fort Walton Beach, where Hill was doing computer work for the Air Force. He remembers hearing — for the first time — that abortion was a sin. That what he thought of as a clump of cells was a life, created by God.

He remembers when a protester at a Pensacola clinic shot Dr. David Gunn three times in 1993, the first known killing of an abortion provider in America, and the next year, when a second Pensacola doctor and his escort also were shot dead. Hill felt that any kind of extremist violence was wrong. Yet he realized just how deeply some people believed abortion needed to end and by any means.

He remembers the young woman who came to his State Farm office in 2002, pregnant. He asked her if she wanted life insurance for the baby, too, but she said she didn’t plan on keeping it. They talked. Two days later, she returned and said she’d changed her mind.

His wide-set eyes grow big as he marvels at the creation of new DNA, a new personality, in the womb. His bill replaces the word “fetus” with “unborn human being.” Hill brushes off concerns, though his bill would effectively ban abortion before some women even know they’re pregnant. A woman wouldn’t hurt herself with a coat hanger to end a pregnancy, he scoffs. He wishes he didn’t have to include exceptions for rape and incest.

“Amazing God would give a woman the privilege of carrying a life in her body,” he says, his voice boyish in its awe.

Hill’s rollout

In the middle of March, Hill had stood in the Capitol’s marbled rotunda, hoping to give his heartbeat bill momentum at a press conference. Other states were moving forward, faster.

“You can go to prison for destroying an eagle’s egg,” lamented Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “Yet, somehow we reconcile that it’s OK to put women in this position and open a doorway that says it’s OK to destroy your offspring.”

Eskamani stood before the men, impassive. She had helped scramble protesters, who flooded in 60-something strong, holding hot pink signs like “WE DECIDE” and “ABORTION BANS ARE DANGEROUS.”

Hill, in a firm voice, said Florida was no New York or Virginia, where pro-choice politicians were trying to ease restrictions on late-term abortions. “We celebrate life,” he said, as cameras rolled.

A fellow activist nudged Eskamani to “do a mic check,” to make a megaphone out of supporters’ voices.

She had nothing scripted, and she worried that she’d offend her legislative colleagues.

But she shut down that thought. They were offending her with their policies.

“Mic check,” she finally said loudly, the muscle memory and adrenaline kicking in.

The crowd around her echoed every line.

“WE SUPPORT ACCESS,” she shouted,

“TO REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH!”

“INCLUDING” — she paused,

“ACCESS” —

“TO A SAFE AND LEGAL” —

“ABORTION!”

Hill could barely hear reporters’ questions as others swarmed Eskamani.

“If this ever does reach the governor’s desk,” she told them, breathless, “he should know that the women around me are going to be there.”

Eskamani’s background

In her office, Eskamani tracks bills on a beat-up MacBook covered in faded stickers, her walls a gallery. There she is, jubilant at Orlando Pride. A poster shouts, “My favorite season is the fall of the patriarchy.” There’s her face on Time magazine’s 2018 “Avengers” cover: First they marched. Now they’re running.

Recently, she hung a photo from Persian New Year. Dark hair streaming behind her, she leaps with glee over a fire, while her twin sister, Ida, pours on more gasoline just ahead.

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Rep. Anna Eskamani prepares for session in her office at the Florida State Capitol on April 3, 2019, in Tallahassee. Monica Herndon Tampa Bay Times

She’s got a flurry of bills at play this session, trying to increase training on sexual harassment, make it harder for domestic abusers to keep guns and get money for her local library.

When Eskamani is stressed, which is often recently, she fingers the gold necklace she hasn’t taken off since her mom got sick with cancer.

After she died, Eskamani and her sister didn’t know where to turn when their bodies began to change. They were 13 and couldn’t drive to buy pads or tampons. They didn’t know how to talk with their dad.

Every month, Eskamani bled through the paper towels stuffed into her shorts.

She remembers the shame, too, of her high school sex education in Orlando, the chewed stick of gum held up to illustrate a used woman, and the candy she was offered to mark her “commit-mint” to abstinence. She was a people pleaser but stormed out of the classroom without taking it.

She remembers searching for information online and finding Planned Parenthood. At 18, she made an appointment. At the modest health center near the University of Central Florida, she saw moms bouncing babies and boyfriends picking up girlfriends’ pills. She left with a birth control prescription of her own.

Those were the years she read books by Iranian women to better understand her mom. There was a word for what she felt, and it was feminism.

At UCF, she wrote op-eds about women’s rights and began escorting patients through picket lines at Planned Parenthood, which later hired her to host events and then do public affairs.

Every year she worked there, at least one attempt to restrict abortion moved through the Legislature, despite the likelihood of a court challenge. She’d wear her Planned Parenthood pink dress to Tallahassee and watch from the gallery as legislators green-lit new restrictions. Back at the clinics, she’d wipe tears from patients’ faces.

In recovery rooms, she handed out ginger ale, heat packs, crackers. Patients flew in from Central America, drove hours from other states, called the front desk scared to get out of the car. She became a notary, so she could sign off on parental notifications for minors. In here, she wanted patients to understand, you’re safe.

Her Planned Parenthood boss wrote one of the first checks to her 2018 campaign.

Eskamani, 28, has always felt abortion is nuanced, a decision for a woman, her doctor, her faith and her family. She believes in the power of telling women’s stories, especially since some of her fellow Democrats still balk at defending abortion in the spotlight.

She discovered, by accident, that her own mother had an abortion.

She found the clinic papers while sifting through a briefcase of family documents. Her mom had been 40; the pregnancy had been high-risk. Eskamani imagines her mom walking that picket line, with three children at home, making that choice.

Parental consent

Hill takes the elevator down one Monday in April, phone in hand, committee-bound. Over his heart, he wears a tiny gold pin, baby feet at 10 weeks.

The House Judiciary Committee room is nearly full, and he takes a seat near the end of a long table up front. As the agenda unspools, members debate esoteric proposals for an hour before Republican Rep. Erin Grall approaches the lectern to discuss her parental consent bill.

Florida Channel cameras roll, sending a stream to TVs across the Capitol, and into Eskamani’s office, where she flips through binder tabs and listens, pained.

It’s not enough, Grall explains, that minors must notify parents or guardians before an abortion. She wants doctors to get a parent’s formal consent.

She explains that minors can seek a judicial waiver to bypass the requirement. Her bill would provide for them to have a pro bono lawyer.

Eskamani knows abortion opponents have a powerful weapon in this bill, because it appears palatable and yet packs a punch.

One by one, people from the audience walk up to the microphone. A woman from a Catholic group says to support parents’ involvement, because the adolescent brain is underdeveloped. A belligerent man with a bald spot plugging “infowars dot com” shouts, “Abortion is bringing this country under judgment,” while a woman in the crowd nods, eyes squeezed shut. A man with spiky, gelled hair and a paisley pocket square says: “One life is worth everything.”

Hill’s stoic face gives up a small smile.

Social workers, Latina activists, law students and Planned Parenthood defenders approach in hot pink T-shirts. They speak of abuse, incest, domestic violence. They talk about minors who attempt unsafe abortions.

A woman holds the hand of her curly-haired daughter, who wears a fuzzy vest in Cookie Monster blue.

“As a person that was sexually abused by one of my brothers,” the woman says, “I completely understand that I would not have been able to bring this up with my parents.”

On TV, Eskamani sees the whole panel: 16 male legislators, two female, and the stream of women begging to be heard.

Shortly before the vote, Rep. Mike Beltran, a Republican from Lithia, leans on an elbow.

He references the woman who came with her daughter.

“Beautiful little daughter with curly hair,” he says. “And that was perhaps the most compelling argument of all for this bill.”

Hill votes “Yes.”

Doing what she can

Two weeks later, lawmakers swivel in cushioned chairs on the House floor, awaiting debate on the parental consent bill, buried deep in the afternoon agenda. At her desk in the back corner, Eskamani readies for her last stand.

House Bill 1335 is finally called at 6 p.m.

She doesn’t have the votes to stop the bill, but she’s drafted questions and prepped Democrats for battle.

Why not work to stop unintended pregnancies instead? Medical professionals have grave concerns, are you aware?

Grall stands with a microphone, fending off the barrage.

“I believe that parents have the best interests for their children in mind for their medical outcomes,” she says.

How are minors without Internet access supposed to know their options? Is the current parental notice system not effective? What has changed that would make this legislation constitutional?

Eskamani stands to introduce an amendment, which would make information about judicial waivers easier to find. But the room is growing louder. Some leaders just walk out.

“Madam Speaker, there’s a lot of noise back here if you could help,” Eskamani says, exasperated. “We want young people to make an informed decision.”

Her amendment fails.

In debate, thanks largely to Eskamani’s spreadsheets and prep work, Democrats paint pictures of at-risk girls forced to carry babies to term and teenagers who live 45 minutes from the closest courthouse.

Republicans speak less but urge colleagues not to deprive all parents of rights because of a few bad apples. Don’t teens need permission for an aspirin in the nurse’s office or a trip to the zoo? They point out that the privacy clause says nothing explicitly about abortion. A few quote Psalms and Jeremiah.

Hill doesn’t speak. Instead, he retweets a stock image of babies with the caption, “Jesus loves the children born, preborn, unplanned, planned, unwanted, wanted, perfect, not perfect!” He tweets about his heartbeat bill with his usual commentary: “Come on, Florida!”

In the middle of all this, Eskamani stands again, hand on hip. She paces, looking down at the carpet.

“Imagine that you’re 16 years old, you realize you’re pregnant, and you literally have no one to talk to,” Eskamani says. She looks up. “Or in fact, members, imagine that you’re me.”

She tells them her mom died when she was a teenager. That her dad left to work abroad. She said she was scared to become pregnant. What would she do?

She looks down at her notes.

“I humbly ask for you to have some empathy on this issue,” she says. “Abortion is not black and white.”

Soon, the vote board will light up in green, and the bill will sail over to the Senate, where a slightly different version is stuck in the committee phase, with about one week to rush it to the floor.

Eskamani knows the battles are just beginning, that abortion opponents won’t let this moment pass, not while they have power in every branch.

So she plans to introduce her pro-choice bill again. Hill, quietly, plans the same for his heartbeat bill. The lines have been drawn.

Contact Claire McNeill at 727-893-8321 or cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill.

“Jane Roe” in 1973's Roe v. Wade case was a pseudonym for Norma McCorvey of Texas. At that time, abortion was outlawed in Texas except in rare cases. The Supreme Court determined that a woman’s right to have an abortion is protected under the Four

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