TAMPA — Florida legislators on Wednesday announced a renewed effort to adopt a law allowing prosecution of those who injure or destroy fetuses, citing a recent case in which a man pleaded guilty in federal court to giving his pregnant girlfriend an abortion pill instead of antibiotics.
State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, and state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, are co-sponsors of companion bills that passed the House this year but failed in the Senate. Both lawmakers vowed to renew the effort when the Legislature convenes early next year.
The face of the effort now is Remee Jo Lee, the victim in the abortion pill case. She was present at a Wednesday morning news conference to urge the passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which would make it a felony to injure or kill an unborn child, no matter how far along the pregnancy.
“It was a devastating time for me and my family,” Lee said. “I was deprived of my choice and my baby.”
Her case landed in federal court because state prosecutors couldn’t find a law to use against John Andrew Welden, said Lee’s attorney, Gil Sanchez. Welden eventually pleaded guilty to a federal charge of product tampering and was expected to be sentenced to a 13-year prison term in December.
Federal prosecutors argued Welden forged a prescription from his father, physician Stephen Welden. John Welden changed the label to make the drug, Cytotec, appear to be the common antibiotic amoxicillin.
Welden, 28, is accused of giving the drug to Lee, telling her his father had diagnosed an infection and had instructing her to take it. Lee, who was about six or seven weeks pregnant, lost the baby within a couple of days.
Sanchez said the federal complaint would not have been pursued but for the product-tampering aspect of the case, which placed it in federal jurisdiction. He said state prosecutors’ hands were tied because the unborn baby was not viable to live outside the womb and no Florida statutes addressed the situation.
Sanchez said it was more than a month before prosecutors figured Welden could be prosecuted in federal court. He said that during that time, Welden could have fled the jurisdiction, the country even, with no sanctions. If there had been a state law, Welden would have been arrested immediately, he said.
Legislators and attorneys now will use the case to bolster their argument to pass the state law.
Ahern said killing an unborn child “is probably one of the most heinous crimes that could happen to a woman. It’s sad to say that this case will be the highlight” of the lobbying effort to come, he said.
Both sponsors say the law would not infringe on existing abortion laws because women who terminate their pregnancies or doctors who perform the abortions would be exempt from the statute.
Opponents of the proposed law have argued that the bill would confer “personhood” on all unborn babies, from the moment of conception, perhaps leading to a ban on abortions and many forms of birth control.
Rep. Ahern denied that.
“This is a criminal statute,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the statute on abortion. There are exemptions in the bill.”
Stargell said she was “very hopeful” the bill will pass in the next session of the Legislature, especially now that Lee has given it her support.
“This is not an abortion debate,” Stargell said. “This is about a baby in her womb that was taken from her.”
Stargell said the bill would make any unborn child, no matter how far along, viable, “so the courts don’t have to determine the viability factor.”
Viability describes whether an unborn child can survive outside the womb.