Harris said federal officials will work to make the abortion pill more widely available.
She did in Tallahassee at a time when DeSantis is a leading potential 2024 White House contender.
Harris' invoked DeSantis-favorite themes of "freedom and liberty."
Vice President Kamala Harris directly hit Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida over his "freedom and liberty" rhetoric and policies during a landmark abortion rights speech on Sunday in Tallahassee, showing a willingness by the Biden administration to take on the Republican rising star directly.
Her remarks signal that Democrats are working to flip the "freedom" script against Republicans, who have in recent years heralded it as their own amid Biden administration-imposed COVID restrictions.
None have done so more so than DeSantis, who called his forthcoming agenda for Florida the "Freedom Blueprint" and frequently refers to his home state as "the free state of Florida" or "the freest state."
"Can we truly be free if so-called leaders claim to be — I quote, 'on the vanguard of freedom' while they dare to restrict the rights of the American people and attack the very foundations of freedom?" said Harris, who didn't use DeSantis' name but was quoting directly from his 2022 State of the State address.
Harris's speech — right in DeSantis' home state by the US's first female vice president — comes just days after Florida health officials sent a letter to pharmacies warning them not to dispense the abortion pill mifepristone.
The vice president, who has been at the forefront voice for the administration's on abortion rights, announced that President Joe Biden would be signing a memorandum to make abortion pills easier to access. It'll have federal officials consider new ways for patients to get mifepristone, a medication that ends a pregnancy through 10 weeks of gestation. It would also direct those agencies to find ways for patients to access abortion "free from harassment, threats, or violence."
"Can we truly be free if a woman cannot make decisions about her own body? Can we truly be free if a doctor cannot care for her patients? Can we truly be free if families cannot make intimate decisions about the course of their own lives?" Harris, speaking delivered at a concert and nightclub venue the Moon, said.
Harris' speech follows a letter from Florida's Agency for Healthcare Administration, which said pharmacies were not allowed to dispense the abortion pill because under state law a doctor must be the one to give it to patients, after an initial meeting 24 hours earlier.
Seventeen other states have similar prescribing laws as Florida. But the Sunshine State is unique in that DeSantis may be only months away from declaring a 2024 presidential run. A Suffolk University poll released in early January shows DeSantis may have the edge on defeating Biden if he's the GOP nominee.
Democrats have warned a national abortion ban is possible if Republicans control the White House and Congress. "People live in fear of what might be next," Harris said during her remarks.
Congressional Republicans haven't coalesced behind a national abortion ban, though some such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have backed a national 15-week ban.
This month the Biden administration, through the Food and Drug Administration, allowed major pharmacy retailers such as CVS Health and Walgreens to provide patients with the abortion pill when they have a prescription, as long as the pharmacies complete a certification process.
Previously, patients could legally get the abortion pill through the mail after a visit with a doctor over telehealth, or when a doctor gave it to them at a clinic. It's not clear whether state laws will be able to override the FDA's decision, and a court ruling may be necessary to settle the answer to that question, reported Stat News.
More than half of abortions in the US are done with medication instead of surgery. Patients often will take another pill, called misoprostol, to trigger a miscarriage.
Sunday would have marked the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed a national right to abortion. The conservative supermajority Supreme Court overturned the 1973 decision last summer, and since then some states have banned abortion and others have increased access.
It's unclear how Florida will restrict abortion next
DeSantis has been gradually rolling out his agenda in recent weeks, though abortion is one area where he hasn't offered specifics. Asked about which abortion restrictions he'd be willing to sign into law, the governor has said only that he would "expand pro-life protections."
State lawmakers won't be meeting over the issue until March at the earliest when the legislature will begin its session. Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a Republican, said she would be open to restricting abortions to 12 weeks, but that a new law must include exceptions for rape and incest.
Florida already makes it illegal to have an abortion after 15 weeks through a measure DeSantis signed into law, though it's before the state Supreme Court.
Nikki Fried, Florida's former agriculture commissioner who lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Charlie Crist, told Insider she feared DeSantis would go further to restrict abortion rights during this forthcoming legislative session to appeal to GOP presidential primary voters.
Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, co-executive director of Florida Access Network, which helps coordinate patient travel, lodging, and expenses related to abortion, told Insider that she was worried Florida would force a complete ban on medication abortion.
"Our dignity, bodily autonomy, and right to self-determination should be protected and we ask this administration to enact immediate measures to protect and expand access to abortion care," Piñeiro, who attended Harris' speech, said.
During her remarks Sunday, Harris urged Congress to vote for the Women's Health Protection Act, saying it would "protect freedom and liberty." The bill has no chance of passage because Republicans control the US House.
Instead, the House passed legislation that would criminalize doctors who fail to provide neonatal care following a botched abortion late in pregnancy. It won't be taken up in the Democratic-controlled Senate, who — like doctors who perform late-pregnancy abortions — have argued that later abortions occur mainly in cases of severe fetal anomalies.
No robust data exists on the reasons couples choose third-trimester abortions, and such cases make up less than 1% of total abortions in the US, show studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The DeSantis War Room mocked Harris on Twitter for talking about "freedom" after having speech attendees sign a letter attesting they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The Republican Party of Florida directly addressed the abortion issue and called Harris a "far-left radical."
"Democrats are proudly cheerleading barbaric policies to allow unrestricted abortions — including infanticide," RPOF said. "That's all anyone needs to know."
The Women's Health Protection Act that the Biden administration backs does not allow for post-birth termination but until fetal viability, which is generally understood to be at about 24 weeks into a pregnancy. It also allows abortions after viability for "health" reasons but doesn't specify whether this means physical, psychological, or emotional health, or whether someone's age can also be a factor.
Florida has other ways of expanding abortion rights
Abortion rights proved to be a liability for Republicans in the November midterms.
In early January, DeSantis was also attacked from the right for his abortion policies. Ian Fury, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem's spokesman, criticized DeSantis for "hiding behind a 15-week ban" in comments to National Review.
"Does he believe that 14-week-old babies don't have a right to live?" Fury asked.
Senior Biden administration officials said during a phone call with reporters Wednesday that the Biden team picked Florida for Harris to make her speech about abortion rights given the state's 15-week abortion ban, which doesn't have exceptions for rape and incest.
Still, they added that Florida was "a place that offers greater access than its neighbors" because surrounding states have abortion bans that begin even earlier in pregnancy.
Reproductive rights groups are working to put the issue of abortion before Florida voters through a 2024 ballot measure. Fried told Insider that advocates were still early in the process as they worked to get the precise, legal language of the ballot correct. After that, the work of gathering signatures will kick off.
Fried plans to be involved in any way she can, whether through fundraising or holding press conferences, she told Insider.
"We still have a fight ahead of us to protect a woman's right to choose," Fried said. "We are not going to let go. We are going to keep fighting for this issue and we are going to organize to be at the forefront, and we are not going to back down."
Correction: January 23, 2023 — An earlier version of this story attributed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's "vanguard of freedom" quote to his inauguration. It was from his 2022 State of the State Address.
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