With 6-week abortion ban in place, Florida eyes ‘Safe Haven’ expansion

Florida’s six-week abortion ban officially went into effect this week. But another bill also intended to lower the number of abortions could soon quietly become law as well.

An expansion of Florida’s “Safe Haven” policy — which decriminalizes surrendering unwanted infants, as long as they are given up to specific agencies like hospitals, fire stations and EMS services — faces just one more hurdle to becoming law. It has long been a piece of legislation in the toolbox of anti-abortion supporters who view legal infant surrenders as a way to encourage more women to carry their pregnancies to term.

The bill’s fate still hangs in the balance, because it has yet to be sent to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk by legislative leaders. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the bill, but a sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Mike Beltran, said he doesn’t anticipate a veto.

But unlike many proposals considered alongside outright abortion bans — like “fetal personhood” or funding decisions — the Safe Haven bill in Florida attracted bipartisan support during the legislative session earlier this year. It’s found success with anti-abortion lawmakers supporting it in hopes of further reducing abortions, and with frustrated pro-abortion rights lawmakers who view it as a triage to help a desperate person with no other options.

“This was a way of doing something that was pro-life without making the left agitated,” Beltran, a Republican from Apollo Beach, said in an interview. “It was a good way to find common ground on the life issue when options were more limited.”

State law currently allows for a surrender up to 7 days after the child was born. This bill would more than quadruple the amount of time to 30 days and also authorize 911 responders to arrange an infant drop-off location in case the child’s guardian has no transportation to an agency’s site.

Safe haven laws exist in all 50 states, with the legal timeframe often varying from 3 days to a month, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Florida’s first Safe Haven law was passed 20 years ago. These laws are typically preventative measures, Beltran said. In dire circumstances, people who can’t care for a child will abandon them, and these laws are in place to prevent those children from dying, he said. (For example, a dead infant was found in a University of Tampa bathroom earlier this week.)

Anti-abortion lawmakers have long tried to pass an expansion, even while pursuing more strict abortion bans. Before Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health — the Supreme Court decision that overturned the national protections from Roe — Beltran and several others were working to pass this expansion in 2020.

Back then, the main focus was on “baby boxes” — authorizing the use of containers at fire stations or hospitals with silent alarms that would trigger when an infant was laid inside, alerting staff of the surrender and therefore allowing the exchange to be anonymous. It met pushback from some lawmakers claiming it was a gimmick primarily intended to enrich one organization, since the organization, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, specializes in the product, Beltran said. (A Safe Haven Baby Boxes spokesperson declined to comment.)

After a few years, Beltran and state GOP Rep. Jennifer Canady eliminated the text about baby boxes and decided to co-sponsor a bill focusing on just expanding the timing during the 2024 legislative session. The bill passed both legislative chambers with unanimous approval.

As the six-week ban loomed over the state during the session, the bill also found bipartisan support. Democratic state Rep. Robin Bartleman said that while she still opposed the state’s new abortion ban, this bill will create an alternative for a considerable amount of women now forced to go through with unwanted pregnancies.

“Once the infant is born, once a child is there, we want to save that child,” Bartleman said. “And not have stories where they’re dumped in a garbage bag. It’s really terrible this year.”

But support from pro-abortion-rights groups for this law only comes begrudgingly, if at all.

Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Florida chapters, said the need to expand the Safe Haven law doesn’t address the root problem and implies a lack of infrastructure for pregnant women in the first place.

Goodhue said it’s a “cruel world” if legislators have to turn to last-minute solutions like this one to help women in need — and continue to add to Florida’s foster care population, which was over 24,000 in 2022. Instead, she said it was vital that voters pass the referendum on the Florida ballot in November that would restore the right to an abortion before viability, which is generally around 24 weeks.

“Women who find themselves in need of a Safe Haven law, that means they have no one,” Goodhue said. “Who else are they turning to? They haven’t received counseling about adoption or abortion, or another way.”

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