Florida’s latest anti-abortion bill could nearly eliminate access across the South

Legislation proposed by Republican state lawmakers in Florida would outlaw abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, a measure that could effectively eliminate access for most abortion care across the US South if enacted.

Abortion is effectively outlawed in more than a dozen states, mostly in the South, following the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the constitutional right to abortion care last June.

Florida banned most abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy, but the latest proposal could join anti-abortion restrictions in neighbouring states and across the deep South, including near-total bans in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as a six-week ban in Georgia. The number of out-of-state abortion patients in Florida rose 38 per cent in 2022 compared to 2021, according to the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

Restricting access in Florida would “prevent not just the nearly four million Florida women of reproductive age from accessing abortion care after six weeks, but would also impact the nearly 15 million women of reproductive age who live in states across the South with abortion bans and would no longer be able to rely on Florida as an option to access care,” according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Governor Ron DeSantis, who signed the state’s 15-week ban into law last year, has pledged to sign any “great life legislation” in the current legislative session and has signalled support for a six-week ban.

“Politicians like Governor DeSantis espouse ‘freedom for all,’ while directly attacking the freedom to make one’s own health care decisions,” Ms Jean-Pierre said in a statement on 7 March.

Many pregnant patients are not aware they are pregnant at six weeks, and “as a result, this bill means many pregnant people will never have the option to have an abortion,” according to Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

But with the state’s additional 24-hour mandatory delay for abortion care and requirements that patients attend two appointments, “even patients who realize they are pregnant before six weeks may be unable to access abortion care before they run out of time,” Ms Goodhue said.

The latest proposal “has nothing to do with what is best for Floridians and everything to do with Ron DeSantis’ ambition to be president and what he thinks Republican primary voters want,” she added.

Democratic state Rep Anna Eskamani, a former Planned Parenthood patient and employee who now represents a district that includes Orlando, said the bill demonstrates “a complete disregard for the women of our state and for our collective freedoms.”

“As we’ve already seen in other states, a six-week ban is extreme, dangerous, and will force millions of people out of state to seek care and others will be forced into pregnancy,” she said in a statement on 7 March. “Most people do not even know they are pregnant until after six weeks, so this six-week ban might as well be a complete ban.”

The latest Florida proposal – introduced on the first day of the legislative session – includes exceptions for pregnancies from rape or incest up to 15 weeks of pregnancy, but a patient must have a copy of a restraining order, police report, medical record or other court order or document as proof.

Legislation would also prevent state funds from supporting a patient who leaves the state to seek an abortion.

Sweeping anti-abortion restrictions across the deep South and neighbouring states – including total bans in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia – means that access in the South is limited to Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, where the state’s Supreme Court struck down a similar six-week ban earlier this year. Abortion providers in that state also do not perform abortions past 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Democratic state Rep Fentrice Driskell, Florida’s House minority leader in the GOP-controlled legislature, condemned the DeSantis administration’s anti-abortion agenda in response to his state of the state address on 7 March.

“Ron DeSantis has promised to further restrict abortion access in Florida. I now have fewer rights than my mother did,” she said in prepared remarks. “And what about Florida’s young daughters and granddaughters? What rights over their own bodies and health will they have left?”