Florida is, in some ways, an oasis of reproductive care in the South. It allows abortions up to 24 weeks, the limit defined in the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. For hundreds of miles, other states have much more restrictive policies — if you headed west from Florida, you’d have to go all the way through the deep South and Texas to New Mexico to find a similar level of reproductive care and accessibility.
But that could soon change. Florida Republicans recently proposed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks with no exceptions for rape or incest. The state legislature is fast-tracking the measure, which cleared its second hurdle on Thursday afternoon when a House subcommittee gave the bill the go-ahead on a party-line vote. And the measure is likely to become law: The legislature has a GOP majority in both chambers, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has already signaled support for a 15-week ban.
If the plan works, it would be devastating for people in Florida — who would not only find it extremely difficult to obtain abortions if they don’t immediately discover they are pregnant, but who would also have to travel long distances to find a state where they could receive care. And the people in the South who now rely on Florida for abortion care would lose one more option.
If the bill does pass, it will face an immediate court challenge. But the anti-choice movement and its allies in Florida government have a plan. The legislation is modeled directly after the 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi that was debated in front of the Supreme Court last month in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Mississippi law threatens to move the federal gestational limit allowed in Roe from 24 weeks to 15 weeks. Mississippi has also asked the conservative Supreme Court majority to overturn Roe altogether. Although the decision in the case is not expected until June, many experts and advocates believe that Roe will either be gutted or overturned.
The Florida ban would go into effect on July 1, 2022, likely weeks or even days after the Supreme Court rules in that case.
The companion measures, S.B. 146 and H.B. 5, were introduced in the Florida state legislature earlier this month. The bill, which was quietly tucked inside legislation to revise the state’s Tobacco Education and Use Prevention program, only makes exceptions for cases where the pregnant person’s life is at risk or the fetus has a fatal abnormality.
“We are going to be fighting it, but, I have to say, the legislature in Florida is Republican-majority. They have the votes to get it passed,” Florida state Sen. Lori Berman (D) said on a press call last week.
Florida and Texas effectively serve as bookends to a big portion of the South. Texas already has a draconian six-week abortion ban that deputizes private citizens to enforce it, causing many Texans and others in the region to flee east. But most states east of Texas are hostile to abortion, with little to no access to care. Oklahoma only has four abortion clinics, as well as numerous restrictions — including a proposed Texas-style ban currently moving through the state legislature. Alabama and Arkansas also recently introduced a Texas copycat abortion ban, and an anti-choice group has named the latter the “most pro-life state” two years in a row. Mississippi only has one clinic left in the state and is happy to be the main test case in overturning Roe. Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina also have many abortion restrictions on the books that make it difficult to obtain care.
“What would a woman do in Florida if she couldn’t get an abortion here?” Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) told HuffPost on the call last week. “Is she going to get it in Alabama? I doubt it. Is she going to go get it in Georgia? Not likely. Is she going to have to then drive? Where, though? Where is the nearest state she would have to drive or fly to? There is nowhere to go.”
Floridians seeking abortion care could travel a few states north, but, as Frankel pointed out, that becomes costly and is just another barrier to care that will disproportionately affect low-income people.
Florida is also a very long state. People living in the southern region of the state will have a much longer journey than those in the north. “To go north means a very long drive for people. Being able to take the time off of work and arrange for this kind of trip can put an abortion out of reach for many,” said Elizabeth Nash, a principal policy associate at Guttmacher Institute.
If Roe is overturned, a 15-week abortion ban in Florida would have even more dire consequences. Surrounding states have trigger bans, constitutional amendments outlawing abortion and other severe restrictions that would immediately go into effect if Roe falls. And many advocates and lawmakers worry that if Roe does fall, the conservative majority legislature in Florida would only continue to enact more restrictive anti-abortion measures.
“This ban would be devastating to the landscape nationally. You’ve got a huge, huge important part of the country — the southeastern part of the United States — lacking access.”
Although a 15-week ban isn’t as extreme as, say, Texas’ vigilante abortion law, many advocates and pro-abortion rights lawmakers in the state cautioned against viewing a 15-week ban as any less harmful.
“The vast majority of abortions in the United States do occur before 15 weeks, but the ones that occur after 15 weeks are the most compelling cases,” said Berman, the state senator.
“You’ve got individuals who want the pregnancy but are then told about some kind of problem that will occur with the pregnancy that might not fall into these limited exceptions [the law] has given you. You have 14-year-old girls who are in denial that they’re even pregnant,” she said. “Now, because of COVID, you have people who aren’t even able to get into a doctor before 15 weeks of pregnancy. You also have women who are saving money who don’t have the funds to be able to afford an abortion, so it might be 15 weeks before they get the money together.”
Florida was actually the first state to propose a copycat of Texas’ six-week abortion ban back in September, but it didn’t pick up steam in the state legislature. Reproductive rights advocates in the area predicted at the time that the legislature had introduced a copy of the Texas law to make a 15-week ban seem less extreme.
“We think that they’re going to use [the copycat bill] as a way to pass something that is closer to a Mississippi-style ban and be able to say, ‘Hey, we listened to people and this isn’t the extreme thing they did in Texas,’” Damien Filer, a communications consultant with Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida, told HuffPost in October. “Our feeling is that they’re going to position something closer to the Mississippi bill as the kinder, gentler abortion ban.”
Florida’s 15-week ban proposal is just as “cruel and barbaric” as other anti-abortion measures, but it may have an outsize impact on the country if passed, said Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro Choice-America.
“This ban would be devastating to the landscape nationally,” she said. “You’ve got a huge, huge important part of the country ― the southeastern part of the United States ― lacking access. That’s terrifying.”