Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Thursday signed a 15-week abortion ban into law, a move that abortion rights advocates say will significantly decrease access in the Southeast.
“We are here today to protect life. We are here today to defend those who can’t defend themselves,” DeSantis said before signing the bill into law.
The governor was met with loud rounds of applause as he gave his remarks at a church in Kissimmee, Florida. Supporters of the 15-week abortion restriction, as well as a floor-to-ceiling monitor that read “Florida is pro-life,” stood behind him.
The 15-week ban was fast-tracked in the state legislature after state Sen. Kelli Stargel (R) and state Rep. Erin Grall (R) proposed the companion measures, S.B. 146 and H.B. 5, in January. They were quietly tucked inside legislation to revise the state’s Tobacco Education and Use Prevention program.
The law makes no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, and it only allows exceptions if the mother is at risk of serious injury or death or when the fetus has a fatal abnormality.
“The consequence of Roe v. Wade is that everyone in this room does love someone who has had an abortion or who has been touched by an abortion. But that doesn’t mean we have to support abortion as an alternative to life,” Grall said at the signing. “It means that we need to love each other and support each other as we seek to end this horrific chapter in our country’s history.”
The law is set to go into effect on July 1, but it will likely face an immediate court challenge from abortion rights advocates since it is currently unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade.
The 15-week ban is set to go into effect weeks or even days after the Supreme Court rules in a case that threatens to overturn or gut Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that protects the right to abortion. The case centers on a Mississippi law that bans abortion at 15 weeks, the very law that Florida’s ban was modeled after. 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. Many experts and advocates believe that Roe will either be gutted or overturned.
Pro-choice advocates condemned DeSantis and other anti-abortion lawmakers in Florida who helped pass this law. Many, like NARAL Pro-Choice America President Mini Timmaraju, pointed to a troubling trend.
“Today, Florida became the third state ― after Arizona and Kentucky ― to enact a 15-week ban modeled after Mississippi’s unconstitutional 15-week ban currently being challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court,” Timmaraju said. “This is a shameless step towards what could be a terrifying new future for reproductive freedom in the country.”
Despite several attempts from Florida Democrats to include amendments to make exceptions for rape and incest, the GOP-controlled legislature voted all of them down.
State Sen. Lauren Book (D) shared her own story of being drugged and raped by several men as a child in an attempt to sway her Republican colleagues into voting in support of an amendment that would make exceptions.
Stargel, the main Senate sponsor of the abortion restriction, was not influenced by Book’s personal experience. Instead, she argued that most women will lie about rape in order to get an abortion. “I fear for the men who are going to be accused of a rape so that the woman could have an abortion because that’s her only way out,” Stargel said during floor debate last month. “A woman is going to say she was raped so she could have the abortion.”
“Today is a dark day for Florida.”
“Today is a dark day for Florida,” Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) said in a statement on Thursday. “The personal decision about whether and when to bring a child into this world should be made by the pregnant individual, not their governor, local representative, or member of Congress. I am deeply concerned about the consequences this extreme abortion ban will have on pregnant people across our state, especially low-income individuals and underserved communities.”
Dr. Kelly Thibert, a family medicine physician and abortion provider from Bradenton, Florida, and member of the Committee to Protect Health Care, echoed Frankel’s sentiments.
“There is no medical reason to ban abortions after 15 weeks; there are only potential harms,” she said in a statement to HuffPost. “Physicians know that forcing a person to carry a pregnancy to term can cause physical or mental health issues, or force them to remain with a violent partner. Physicians see the difficulties patients face when they are forced to travel hundreds of miles, paying high travel costs, finding child care, and losing wages or a job, just to get an abortion, a safe and necessary medical procedure. For individuals who simply don’t want to be pregnant, or for whom it is dangerous to be pregnant, our job as physicians is to help them get the treatment they need and deserve.”
Although a 15-week ban isn’t as extreme as Texas’ vigilante abortion law, which bans the procedure at about six weeks, many advocates and pro-choice lawmakers caution 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,” Florida state Sen. Lori Berman (D) told HuffPost in January.
“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.”
The consequences of the abortion ban will have a dire effect on the South, said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.).
“What would a woman do in Florida if she couldn’t get an abortion here?” Frankel told HuffPost in January. “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.”
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 has only 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 Texas copycat abortion bans, and an anti-abortion group has named Arkansas the “most pro-life state” two years in a row. Mississippi has just 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.
If Roe is overturned in June as the Supreme Court decision looms, surrounding states have trigger bans, constitutional amendments outlawing abortion and other severe restrictions that would immediately go into effect. And many advocates and lawmakers worry that if Roe does fall, the conservative-majority legislature in Florida would continue to enact more restrictive anti-abortion measures.