In Florida, Roe v. Wade overturn triggers emotions from all sides of abortion debate

Kathryn Varn

Florida erupted with raw emotions on Friday over the long anticipated U.S. Supreme Court opinion to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, with all sides of the contentious debate sounding off in nearly every corner of the state.

Reactions ran the political spectrum. Anti-abortion activists expressed triumph in achieving their decades-long goal of eliminating the nationwide right enshrined in the 1973 Roe V. Wade landmark ruling, while abortion rights activists condemned the decision for setting back women's rights over their own bodies. 

In Pensacola, Dr. Thomas Messe, a family doctor in Santa Rosa County, part of a group of anti-abortion protesters, said he was feeling "joyful" after hearing the news from Washington.

"Babies are going to get a chance to live and see the blue sky and see the flowers and see the bright sunshine in the world that God has made, and be given the chance of life," Messe said. "I think it's a good win for women too. Women have been given a raw deal with this abortion. They've been hurt by abortion. They've been told abortion is good for them, but it's not."

The fall of Roe v. Wade:Five questions about abortion access in Florida

Abortions in Florida:Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, what's legal and what's not

What does overturning Roe mean?:What we know about the Supreme Court's abortion ruling.

From her home in Deltona, Alyce Shelton wept as the news streamed in on her phone. Shelton, 60, got an abortion in 1973, the same year Roe was decided, when she was just 11 years old. She got pregnant after a summer camp counselor raped her, she said, and looks back grateful that she was able to terminate the pregnancy. 

She now worries about her two daughters and three granddaughters. She’s struggling to believe that they have fewer reproductive rights than she did.

“I swear I feel punched in the stomach" Shelton said. "I really do."

Friday's opinion by the nation's highest court now pushes abortion regulation to the states.

In Florida, the procedure remains legal. Current law allows for the procedure within 24 weeks of pregnancy. But, beginning July 1, a new ban will go into effect prohibiting the procedure after 15 weeks. The ban is similar to the Mississippi law that sparked the legal challenge that resulted in Friday's ruling.

The opinion was widely expected after Politico published a leaked draft opinion in early May that was similar to Friday's final decision. Both the draft and official opinions were authored by Justice Samuel Alito, who President George W. Bush appointed to the high court in 2005.

Emotional and divisive issue

Even though the latest statewide polls show a majority believe abortion should be legal, the issue remains an emotional and divisive one.

In Sarasota, Rich Owens, who leads the local 40 Days for Life campaign, expressed gratitude for the court decision, but he vowed that his anti-abortion organization would continue with its plans for a 40-day vigil in the fall outside of the city's sole Planned Parenthood clinic. 

"In some ways, this [court decision] will make it easier to recruit people because it’s clear that prayer has an impact," he said.

For Kelly Flynn, who had an abortion as a teenager in North Carolina, she woke up Friday morning and cried, describing the Supreme Court decision as "cruel."

Flynn has been advocating for and expanding access to abortion for years since buying her first clinic, A Woman's Choice in Jacksonville, when she was 25. She now owns four clinics in Florida and North Carolina. 

"I'm 45 years old and I never thought that this would happen in our lifetime and the fact that we're just moving backwards," Flynn said from her Jacksonville clinic. "One day we're granted gun rights and the next day women can't make their own decisions about their own bodily autonomy." 

Dig deeper:Online data, medical records could be used to put women in jail under new abortion laws

And:Women born before abortion was legalized organize against possible end of Roe V. Wade

'Catastrophic':Women in the military could face huge obstacles to abortion if Roe is overturned, lawmaker

Related:Abortions don’t have to be traumatic. But overturning Roe v. Wade could make it that way.

Divided abortion politics

In the political world, the reaction was no surprise.

Florida's top Democrats were quick to release statements condemning the decision.

“This is a tragic day for women in America," said Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, who is also running to be the Democratic nominee for governor. "The freedom to make our own choices about our lives, our bodies, and our healthcare is fundamental to our humanity. It’s absolutely devastating to have those rights taken away."

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the St. Petersburg congressman who polls show is the leading Democratic nominee for governor, called Friday's decision, "a terrible day for our country."

Crist also warned that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature could enact even stricter abortion limits in Florida. As a Republican governor, Crist in 2010 vetoed legislation requiring that women undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion.

His successor, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, signed the ultrasound requirement into law a year later.

"That veto pen is the only thing standing between a woman's right to choose and the radical right of Gov. DeSantis to take away your right to choose," Crist said.

Planned Parenthood representatives joined in the grief and anger surrounding Friday's decision, as did the Florida Action Network, an abortion fund and mutual aid nonprofit organization.

The groups underscored that they will continue to make abortion accessible to Floridians despite Friday's ruling and any future statewide restrictions.

“It is a dark day for our country, but this is far from over," said Alexandra Mandado, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida. "We will not compromise on our bodies, our dignity, or our freedom. Floridians should know that Planned Parenthood will always fight for you, and we will not back down." 

“We will continue to push back on abortion stigma to ensure people who have abortions feel loved, affirmed and tangibly supported," said Stephanie Loraine, co-executive director of the access network.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was "deeply heartened by the decision." 

"This is a momentous step towards establishing a more robust culture of life," Florida bishops said in a statement.

Leaders in Florida's Republican-majority Legislature applauded the decision.

Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said his House chamber agreed "that abortion is an issue that should be left to the states."

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the court "is finally righting a grievous wrong." 

Calls for stricter abortion laws

“It’s hard to believe we live in a country that has permitted the murder of 63 million innocent children over the last 50 years," Simpson said. "Florida is a state that values life. I have been proud to support pro-life, pro-family policies that not only protect innocent, unborn babies, but also support children, parents, and other caring adults willing to raise a child who is not their own.”

At least one state legislator, Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, has requested in writing that DeSantis bring legislators to Tallahassee for a special session to "pass stronger pro-life legislation" to "protect Florida’s unborn children."

Andrew Shirvell, executive director for Florida Voice for the Unborn, among the most vocal anti-abortion groups in the state, echoed Sabatini in calling on DeSantis to outlaw all abortions in Florida. 

“Governor DeSantis and the Legislature cannot continue to be held hostage by what our state courts may or may not do,” Shirvell wrote

DeSantis took to Twitter, saying "by properly interpreting the Constitution, the Supreme Court has answered the prayers of millions upon millions of Americans."

"For nearly fifty years, the U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited virtually any meaningful pro-life protection, but this was not grounded in the text, history or structure of the Constitution," DeSantis wrote in his statement. "By properly interpreting the Constitution, the Dobbs majority has restored the people's role in our republic and a sense of hope that every life counts.

"Florida will continue to defend its recently-enacted pro-life reforms against state court challenges, will work to expand pro-life protections, and will stand for life by promoting adoption, foster care and child welfare," he added.

The 15-week abortion limit DeSantis singed in April was the most restrictive state ban since Roe v. Wade. It was approved in mostly party-line votes in the Republican-controlled state House and Senate.

While the high court's ruling Friday upholds the restricted time frame, Planned Parenthood affiliates, independent abortion clinics and a South Florida Jewish congregation challenging the law in state court argue that it violates the Florida Constitution's right to privacy. Abortions currently can be obtained up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Gov. Ron DeSantis in his comments following Friday's ruling said his focus is on defending the state's new restriction "against state court challenges," hinting he is not eager to call lawmakers back into special session to enact tougher limits or an outright ban.

A Florida Atlantic University poll in May found that 67% of Floridians believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. For now, DeSantis and most Florida lawmakers up for election this year appear inclined to gauge how reaction to the Supreme Court ruling plays across the state before revisiting abortion in Florida.

On Friday, leading Florida anti-abortion activist John Stemberger put in perspective the movement's decades-long battle to get to this point. 

"I’ve been working since 1982 for this surreal & emotional moment today. Roe is no more," said Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. "We can now begin the great struggle where it should be, back to the states to protect unborn children."

Linda Taggart takes a very different view through her own historical lens. She was on the front lines of abortion rights as the long-time administrator of The Ladies Center in Pensacola. She was there in 1974, a year after the Roe v. Wade decision, and up until the early 2000's when she retired. During that time The Ladies Center was bombed twice and both of the doctors who were murdered in Pensacola worked for the clinic.

In an email to the News Journal, Linda Taggart, 83, called the Friday's ruling a disaster.

“This makes me sick to my stomach,” she said. “…I never thought, especially after 50 years, they would strike down Roe v. Wade. That ends women rights. Women are going to lose their lives having illegal abortions. Only the women with money will be able to travel to obtain an abortion.”

Contributing: Pensacola News Journal reporter Jim Little, USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau reporters John Kennedy and Jason Delgado, Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Stefania Lugli, Florida Times-Union reporter Katherine Lewin, Palm Beach Post reporters Antigone Barton and Hannah Phillips, and Pensacola News Journal Executive Editor Lisa Nelleson Savage.

Kathryn Varn is statewide enterprise reporter for the Gannett/USA Today Network - Florida. You can reach her at kvarn@gannett.com or (727) 238-5315.