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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Abortion rights supporters are worried about a bill to expand who can file wrongful death lawsuits

People march down a street in downtown Tampa carrying signs in support of reproductive rights
Stephanie Colombini
More patients from out-of-state came to Florida for abortions last year as other states in the region enacted near-total bans on the procedure.

The bill would allow parents to sue for damages in the death of a fetus. Though bill sponsors say it's not abortion-related, attempts to make that clear in the text have so far failed.

Abortion rights supporters in Florida are concerned about legislation that could allow parents to sue for civil damages in the death of a fetus.

The bill would add “parents of an unborn child” to the list of people allowed to file wrongful death lawsuits. It specifies that legal action could not be brought against the mother.

Many states recognize wrongful death claims of unborn children as valid, but only if the fetus was viable at the time of death, meaning it could survive outside the uterus — which typically occurs around 24 weeks into pregnancy. The Florida proposal could allow for lawsuits at any stage of development.

State law already allows criminal charges in the death of a fetus, but it exempts those involved in legal abortions from prosecution.

The civil liability legislation, sponsored by Sen. Erin Grall (R-Vero Beach) and Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka (R-Fort Myers), doesn’t include similar protections.

Persons-Mulicka recently stressed to a House committee that her bill, HB 651, is not abortion-related.

But critics of the measure are skeptical, including Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. She worries the bill could allow men to sue doctors or those who help women obtain abortions.

Goodhue cited a Texas man who last year sued his ex-wife’s friends for wrongful death, accusing them of helping her obtain an abortion. The friends eventually countersued and claimed he used the lawsuit to continue abuse against his ex-wife.

“If this is not a bill to make it more difficult for people to access reproductive healthcare, then they [lawmakers] should specify that in the bill language,” said Goodhue.

Rep. Ashley Gantt (D-Miami) tried to amend the bill to protect abortion providers during a committee hearing earlier this month. It was rejected along party lines.

Another change that Goodhue said could help address concerns would be to amend the text to only allow the pregnant person to file a wrongful death claim.

“That eliminates the father who could be an abuser or a rapist or what have you from holding additional power over that person,” Goodhue said.

Rep. Persons-Mulicka and Sen. Grall also sponsored Florida’s current 15-week abortion ban and a six-week ban that could take effect pending a Florida Supreme Court ruling.

Opponents of abortion rights, including the group Florida Voice for the Unborn, spoke in support of HB 651, with executive director Andrew Shirvell recently calling it “a good step in the right direction recognizing that unborn children are persons."

Goodhue worries that sort of language could support future attempts to restrict reproductive rights.

The House bill is moving through committees. The Senate version has not had a hearing yet.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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