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Florida's 6-week abortion ban is now in effect, curbing access across the South

Thousands of abortion rights protesters rallied in Tampa on Oct. 2, 2021.
Stephanie Colombini
Thousands of abortion rights protesters rallied in Tampa on Oct. 2, 2021.

TAMPA, Fla. — Starting today, people can no longer access legal abortions in Florida beyond six weeks of pregnancy, except in rare circumstances.

The restriction replaces a 15-week ban that's been in effect since July 2022, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Abortion rights supporters say it will dramatically curb access to the procedure for thousands of residents in Florida and around the South. Proponents of the ban say it "protects life."

Voters will have a say on the matter in November when a proposal to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution will appear on the election ballot. Regardless of what happens this fall, the ban could have far-reaching effects.

Opponents of the ban stress that many people don't realize they are pregnant at six weeks. But for those that do, abortion services remain available in the state until that time frame.

Abortion care providers in the state like Planned Parenthood are doing ultrasounds earlier and have extended their hours to accommodate as many patients as they can.

"We want to be able to help everyone with information in order to access care as quickly as possible," says Barbara Zdravecky, interim CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

Still, she expects many patients will be too far along when they reach out for help.

"The emotional turmoil that's going to happen, the anger, the fear, the anxiety is going to be great," says Zdravecky, who adds centers are ramping up support staff to respond to patients' concerns and help them navigate their options.

Adding to scheduling challenges are Florida's 24-hour mandatory waiting period and a ban on using telemedicine for abortions. Patients have to attend two in-person appointments, one for a consultation and another for the procedure at least one day later.

The South loses a major abortion access point

An examination room in a clinic that provides abortion care on April 30, 2024, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Getty Images
An examination room in a clinic that provides abortion care on April 30, 2024, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Florida joins eleven other states in the South that have already severely restricted abortion in recent years, either with six-week bans or total bans. Residents in those places have relied on Florida to access the procedure.

Out-of-state residents fueled a steady increase in abortions in Florida despite the 15-week ban. Nearly 8,000 people traveled to the state last year for abortions, according to data from the state Agency for Health Care Administration. That's nearly 10% of all patients.

"We don't want to be an abortion tourism destination," Gov. Ron DeSantis said last fall.

Florida is no longer an option for the rest of the region. North Carolina allows abortions until 12 weeks of pregnancy, but has a 72-hour mandatory waiting period with in-person requirements, so it isn't always a viable alternative.

Instead, advocates that help people access abortions are advising them to travel further to places like Virginia, Illinois or Washington, D.C. That will become increasingly difficult if clinics in states with expanded abortion access struggle to accommodate the influx of patients.

"We're estimating about 90% of our callers are going to need to go out-of-state and that we'll have a large increase in callers because this is going to be a whole new cost for people seeking abortions," says McKenna Kelley, a volunteer board member with the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund.

Abortion funds can help pregnant people cover the cost of abortion procedures and relieve some of the logistical challenges associated with seeking care. But paying for flights, hotel stays and other expenses associated with long-distance travel is much more challenging than giving someone a ride to a nearby clinic.

While what Kelley calls "rage donations" poured in from supporters angry about the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision in 2022, abortion funds say Florida's recent ban hasn't been met with the same response. Organizers fear they won't be able to help everyone in need, but say funds are working together to form a stronger support network around the country.

Even with assistance, travel may not be an option for some people, which means they may choose to self-manage their abortions or carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

"This truly is an American health care crisis," says Zdravecky with Planned Parenthood.

Supporters of the ban suggest pregnancy centers that oppose abortion as alternatives

Orlando Police officers move back anti-abortion rights protesters near the "Rally to Stop the Six-Week Abortion Ban" in Orlando, Fla., on April 13, 2024.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Getty Images
Orlando Police officers move back anti-abortion rights protesters near the "Rally to Stop the Six-Week Abortion Ban" in Orlando, Fla., on April 13, 2024.

Opponents of abortion rights in Florida advocated for the state's six-week ban and have also been busy gearing up for its implementation.

"Our position is we need to protect unborn children, we need to celebrate life, protect life, that's the chief role of government," says John Stemberger, president of Liberty Counsel Action, a religious liberty organization that supports abortion bans.

The group has been briefing the nearly 200 crisis pregnancy centers in Florida about the law and how to prepare for a potential increase in demand for services, he says.

These centers are usually run by faith-based organizations. They encourage pregnant women not to get abortions and to consider parenting or adoption instead. They sometimes offer free ultrasounds or baby supplies.

"We really want to appeal to young mothers or even older mothers who are in what we'd consider a crisis pregnancy to basically think differently about the issue," says Stemberger.

The law that imposes the six-week abortion ban also increased funding for pregnancy centers to $25 million, up from roughly $4 million in 2022.

Some crisis pregnancy centers have been known to provide people with misleading or inaccurate medical information. There have also been calls for more oversight.

Adoption services in the state are also preparing to support more birth mothers who may choose that option.

Florida's six-week ban includes exceptions for some vulnerable communities and when a mother or fetus' life is in danger.

Survivors of rape, incest or human trafficking can access abortions until 15 weeks of pregnancy under the new law, but it mandates they provide documentation, such as a police report or medical record, and providers may be obligated to report the crime in some cases.

Many survivors don't feel safe or comfortable reporting assaults, says Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, executive director of the abortion fund Florida Access Network. She calls the requirements "unrealistic" and "incredibly cruel."

As with the previous 15-week ban, there are exceptions to save the pregnant person's life or avert "substantial and irreversible" bodily harm. Patients can also access abortions until the third trimester if physicians detect the fetus has a fatal abnormality.

Voters can weigh in on the ban in November

Supporters of President Joe Biden cheer as they await his speech about reproductive freedom at Hillsborough Community College-Dale Mabry Campus in Tampa, Fla., on April 23, 2024.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of President Joe Biden cheer as they await his speech about reproductive freedom at Hillsborough Community College-Dale Mabry Campus in Tampa, Fla., on April 23, 2024.

On the same day that it upheld the 15-week ban, which allowed the six-week ban to go into effect, the Florida Supreme Court also allowed a proposal to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution to remain on the November ballot.

If passed, Amendment 4 would allow abortion access in Florida until fetal viability, which is usually around 24 weeks, "or when necessary to protect the patient's health, as determined by the patient's healthcare provider."

Supporters and opponents of abortion rights have made it a priority moving forward.

"It's critical that we turn out the vote this fall for people to protect their freedoms. The [state] Supreme Court has basically put this issue in the voters' hands," says Florida House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat.

President Joe Biden made abortion the focus of a visit to Tampa last Monday, while Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to talk about it in Jacksonville on Wednesday.

Opponents of the ballot initiative call it a "radical, no-limits" abortion amendment and are campaigning against it.

"Prop 4, the abortion lobby's dream amendment, is extremely misleading," says Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement following President Biden's visit to Tampa.

The wording of the proposal was at the heart of the state's legal challenge to the effort. Attorney General Ashley Moody argued it would confuse voters. But in its 4-3 opinion, the state Supreme Court wrote that the proposal was "plainly stated in terms that clearly and unambiguously reflect the text of the proposed amendment."

The increased attention on the ballot initiative is appreciated, says Megan Jeyifo, executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, which has been working with partners in Florida to help patients travel to the Midwest for care. But she worries people may devote all their resources to getting that passed and forget the pregnant people affected by the ban now.

"Because [Amendment 4] will be won on the backs of those people, you know it will be won, and people will give birth when they didn't want to," she says.

Other states have successfully passed ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights, but none had quite as high a threshold as Florida. For Amendment 4 to pass, 60% of voters need to approve it.

Copyright 2024 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.