The national abortion debate played out on the streets of Lakeland Wednesday as residents both protested and celebrated the introduction of bills that would ban the procedure in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy.

Several dozen abortion-rights activists gathered along South Florida Avenue by the Southgate Shopping Center during the evening rush hour to voice their dismay, generating a cacophony of honks from like-minded drivers and at least one thumbs down from a man in a black BMW.

The protesters chanted, “Right to life, your game’s a lie. You don’t care if women die!” and “Hey hey, ho ho, your backwards ways have got to go!”

Abortion-rights demonstrators near Southgate on Wednesday evening | Kimberly C. Moore, The Ledger

On the other side of the debate, a larger-than-usual group of anti-abortion activists took up posts outside the Lakeland Women’s Health Center earlier in the day, holding graphic anti-abortion signs and imploring women to “Love your child!” 

Anti-abortion demonstrators outside Lakeland Women’s Health Center Wednesday afternoon | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Both groups were energized by the introduction of matching bills in the state Senate and House of Representatives on the opening day of Florida’s legislative session proposing a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy – typically two weeks after a woman’s first missed period and before many realize they are pregnant. 

The Senate bill (S.B. 300) was sponsored in the Sen. Erin Grall, R-Lake Placid. The House version (H.B. 7) was sponsored by Reps. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers, and Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers.

The bills provide exceptions for rape or incest up to 15 weeks of pregnancy, but only if patients can provide “a copy of a restraining order, police report, medical record, or other court order or documentation providing evidence that she is obtaining the termination of pregnancy because she is a victim of rape or incest.” 

If passed, the legislation would effectively eliminate most abortion access in the South. 

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Florida has been one of the few southern states where those seeking to terminate pregnancies could go. Florida has about 60 clinics that offer abortion. North Carolina has about a dozen and South Carolina has three.

Abortion has been outlawed almost completely in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. It is prohibited after six weeks in Georgia. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president and has been visiting early primary states, has already signaled his support for the six-week ban. In his state of the state speech on Tuesday, DeSantis said he is “proud to be pro-life” and vowed to sign any abortion restriction measures that reach his desk.

Lakeland resident Bonnie Patterson-James, who opposes the proposed ban, said she wasn’t surprised. “I think we were all expecting it, but my heart  hurts … It’s such a numbing anger.”

Political for some, deeply personal for others

Against a backdrop of dueling protests, Kay, 35, escorted her 32-year-old sister across a grass and dirt parking lot, through black plastic sheeting, and into the waiting room of the Lakeland Women’s Health Center on Wednesday morning for a scheduled abortion.

On the sidewalk outside, abortion-rights activists carried signs saying “Keep Abortion Legal,” “Freedom From Religion,” and “Abortion IS Safe and Legal.” 

Anti-abortion protesters yelled things like “Ma’am, Can we help you? Please talk to us!” Some carried large posters with pictures of aborted fetuses, emblazoned with phrases like “After Death Comes Judgement. Hell is Real Only Jesus Saves,” “Babies are Murdered Here,” and “Dear Lakeland Police Department This is Your Holocaust. Police Repent” – apparently because a police officer is assigned to the clinic each Wednesday when abortions are performed.

Kay, who did not want her last name used, later explained that her sister has a 13-year-old daughter and lost the girl’s father in a car accident several years ago.  She hadn’t dated anyone for a long time, but spent the night with someone in late January. They used a condom, but it slipped off and five weeks later, she realized she was pregnant.

“She’s a young single mom. She’s been on her own for a really long time,” Kay said. “She knew it was best for her not to have a baby right now.  She is very, very, very sick – it was a terrible pregnancy with her first one and she knew she couldn’t go through that again. I’m of the opinion that everyone should have the right to choose. All lives matter, but the lives that are already here matter more than anyone else.”

Last year, the Florida Legislature reduced the time frame an abortion could be carried out from 24 weeks to 15 weeks – two weeks into the second trimester of pregnancy. Exceptions are made when the life of the mother is at stake or when two doctors put in writing that the pregnancy is not viable or the baby will die shortly after birth.

There has been some confusion over that, with a Lakeland mother forced to carry to full term a baby she, her husband, and her doctors knew would not survive more than two hours after birth because Lakeland Regional Health attorneys felt the law was unclear and wanted to protect their doctors from litigation or even arrest.

Deeply held beliefs

An anti-abortion protester in front of the clinic, who declined to be interviewed or give her name, yelled at a woman walking in the front parking lot of the clinic: “Love your child!”

Her 66-year-old husband, who would only give his first name – Joe – sat in a lawn chair, his Bible on the ground by his side as he spoke about participating in anti-abortion demonstrations throughout the country.

“I’ve had things thrown at me, I’ve been knocked to the ground,” Joe said. “We’re going to be hated for His name’s sake.”

Joe discusses his beliefs | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Joe said the Bible orders Christians to proclaim the good news to all living creatures and that we are to love one another and not worry about what people think of him.

“Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” he said. “Women need to be honored by men and be taken into the covenant of marriage.”

He paused to yell an offer of help to a woman walking into the clinic.

Joe said he is originally from Iowa, but lives in Lakeland now.  He said he and his wife now travel around and protest outside of abortion clinics, including to Milwuakee last summer. He said most of the clinic workers in Lakeland are not too receptive to hearing about the gospel. He added that it is much more difficult in Lakeland to communicate with women going into the clinic than in other states because the clinic enforces a strict policy of keeping protesters on sidewalks.

“I can’t go over to that area to reach out to moms to plead for the child she is carrying and offering help so she doesn’t abort the child,” Joe said. “Last week a woman rolled down her window and said she was keeping the baby. The father was bawling.”

When told about Deborah Dorbert, who had to carry a child she knew would die to full term because of a decision by Lakeland Regional attorneys, Joe said his wife had been told that her first child wasn’t going to make it, but he is now 27 years old and perfectly healthy.

“If that child is terminal, then let God take the child – not the serial killers,” Joe said, nodding toward the clinic across the road. “Let the mother have a clean conscience. God can really perform a miracle like my first son.”

On a grassy rise by a fence in front of the clinic, Sierra Bird, 29, held a blue-and-white “Keep Abortion Legal” sign. She said she grew up in Lakeland and has four children under 5 years old, including a set of twins that she conceived while on birth control pills. She said she has lingering health issues from her back-to-back pregnancies, including postpartum depression and blood sugar issues.

Sierra Bird, left | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

“It was really hard — I don’t think anyone should go through anything without choosing it,” said Bird, adding that she is outside the clinic most Wednesdays to provide moral support to women going into the clinic. “I went through so much, but if people don’t have to go through what I have gone through unless they genuinely want to … I’m going to have blood sugar issues the rest of my life. I would not have survived twins 100 years ago, pre c-section.”

She said she participated in an abortion-rights rally at Southgate last summer when she was about eight months pregnant with her twins.

“People don’t realize that pro-choice includes choosing to have a baby,” she said.

She decried the pending legislation as “dangerous.”

“It’s very intentional to force people into pregnancy,” Bird said.

She added that she has had her tubes tied, but there is still a chance that an egg could be fertilized anywhere in her abdominal cavity.

“That puts me at risk,” Bird said. “I have one daughter and I don’t want her to be forced to go through a pregnancy.”

Later in the afternoon, after she had taken her sister home, Kay spoke to LkldNow.

“I thought the protesting was so ridiculous,” Kay said. “There were a lot of women there just for pap smears and breast exams and you make women not want to get medical care over one issue that is really none of your business.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

Join the Conversation


  1. I am opposed to the six week ban. Many rape crimes go unreported to the police, as it is a traumatizing event, I can speak personally. I have emailed Governor DeSantis office and have advised that I am against the 6 week ban, some don’t find out until they are beyond six weeks. I think 15 weeks is adequate time to find out and decide. This is too restrictive, in my opinion. I don’t want to lose faith in this governor that I have supported since the 2018 election. Not a good move. At all.

  2. The one person quoted as saying this completely illogical statement:
    “All lives matter, but the lives that are already here matter more than anyone else“…
    By that logic; literally all lives do NOT matter.

    Proving solidly that pro- abortion people are truly ignorant.

  3. And this person’s completely illogical statement:
    “…..force people into pregnancy,” Bird said.

    How ridiculous. No one is forced into a pregnancy- EVERY woman chooses that option by having sex. They have full power to not be or become pregnant.
    (Except the extremely tiny number of rapes; which is tremendously rare by any study).

  4. Abortion is literally murder. This is undisputable fact.
    Any person or group who support baby murder has their morals wrong.

    And I want to thank Kimberly C Moore for a well written article that neither promotes nor criticizes either viewpoint. Nice job!

  5. I always find it amusing that all the people that are “pro-abortion” have already been born…….

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