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Florida's 6-week abortion ban will have nationwide impact, critics warn

Caroline Catherman, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

Abortion-rights advocates are predicting a national fallout from the Florida Supreme Court’s decision Monday to allow a six-week abortion ban to take effect on May 1.

The law will shutter clinics, limit abortions performed here each year, delay care and send thousands of people across state lines to terminate their pregnancies, they said Tuesday.

“(This ban) will affect the entire country,” said Megan Jeyifo from the Chicago Abortion Fund, who added that Florida’s six-week cutoff is “essentially an all-out ban.”

Many low-income women can’t afford travel, prompting them to carry pregnancies to term or take abortion pills at home past six weeks, prescribed via telehealth by doctors from other states.

Six weeks of gestation is just two weeks after a pregnant woman misses her first period, before most women know they are pregnant. Florida also still requires two in-person visits at least 24 hours apart before someone can get an abortion.

“It will make it virtually impossible” to get an abortion, said Kara Gross, Legislative Director and Senior Policy Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The court also gave the OK for Florida residents to vote on whether to undo the six-week ban in November, through a ballot initiative that aims to put abortion rights into the state’s constitution up until viability, long considered to be about 24 weeks. If passed by a 60% majority, that amendment would take effect in mid-January.

But providers and advocates say there may be irreversible changes to abortion in Florida before then.

“People, rightfully so, are excited about the opportunity to vote to enshrine abortion up to 24 weeks in the state constitution of Florida. But we can’t forget that these are real people’s lives, in the meantime, that are impacted — who won’t be able to access care, who are going to confront many more challenges,” said Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, executive director of the Florida Access Network, a fund that helps women afford abortion care.

Piñeiro said some of Florida’s independent abortion providers will struggle to stay afloat for the next nine months.

“Abortion clinics don’t receive bailouts, the same that corporations might. So what the landscape is going to look like is going to be dramatically different, whether we’re able to enshrine abortion in the state constitution or not,” she said.

In response to requests about how its operations might change, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida interim CEO Barbara Zdravecky in an emailed statement reiterated the organization’s dedication to providing care.

“When the six-week ban goes into effect, we will continue to provide safe and legal abortion care in compliance with the law. Patients who need abortion care and are past six weeks pregnant will be navigated to other states with more access. Today and every day, Planned Parenthood will care for our patients and will never stop fighting for our right to control our bodies and our lives,” Zdravecky said.

Illinois replaces Florida

On May 1, Illinois will become the closest state to the Southeast that offers abortions past 12 weeks.

“We anticipated the worst, and the worst is here,” said Megan Jeyifo of the Chicago Abortion Fund. “So I think we are prepared for an influx, I think providers in our state have been working tirelessly for the last two years. The largest concern is that there won’t be money to get people to the appointments.”

Jeyifo said the Chicago Abortion Fund helped more than 12,000 women get an abortion in 2023, spending an average of about $360,000 a month. The fund has never had to turn anyone away, but that day may come soon, Jeyifo said.

Smaller groups funding abortion care, including the Florida Access Network and the Brigid Alliance, already struggle to meet demand and expressed similar concerns to the Orlando Sentinel.

“Abortion funds like us, we’re going to be more strapped for resources than ever,” said Piñeiro.

 

For John Stemberger, newly named president of Liberty Counsel Action, Monday’s Supreme Court decision is a victory. It struck down a long-held precedent that the state constitution’s privacy clause protected the procedure.

“I’m thrilled that after 35 years of work, the court has clarified that Florida’s privacy right has nothing to do with abortion,” he said.

But others expressed concerns about women’s safety.

For one, shuttered Florida clinics and increased demand could create a backlog that stretches across several U.S. states, said Serra Sippel, interim executive director of the Brigid Alliance, a national network assisting people who need to travel for abortion.

“As more people need to travel, we’ll also see clinics scheduling appointments well into the future to meet the demand. So this means people seeking abortions may be forced to delay their procedures and carry their pregnancies further into term, which can be mean risking their health,” she said.

Concerns about vagueness

Dr. Rachel Humphrey, a Central Florida OBGYN specializing in high-risk pregnancies, said she’s concerned the six-week ban’s exceptions are too vague.

Both the current ban and the six-week ban offer exceptions to save the mother from severe harm or death, regardless of how far along the pregnancy is, as well as exceptions for “fatal fetal abnormalities.” The bill has nonclinical language that Humphrey said leaves medical providers confused as to what qualifies. The six-week ban also offers exceptions for rape, incest or trafficking up to 15 weeks.

“We have had multiple cases where I and other physicians involved knew that continuing the pregnancy was dangerous for the mother,” Humphrey said. “And yet not dangerous enough that we felt it met the criteria that the politicians determined.”

One example up for debate is when someone’s water breaks preterm, which can cause an incomplete miscarriage.

“We literally have to wait for the mom either to complete the miscarriage process, or for her to get really sick while waiting before you can give her medicines to help her. And that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with right now, even before the six-week ban,” Humphrey said.

But not all doctors agree. Dr. William Lile, a North Florida OBGYN, said the law is clear about what constitutes an exception. If doctors are delaying care in a way that endangers the mother, they are misinterpreting the law, he said.

“The biggest problem is ignorance about what the law actually says,” Lile said. “When the mother’s physical health is threatened, they can perform that procedure with or without a heartbeat. They don’t have to wait until the mom is in the critical stages in the ICU and might even have a uterine infection and might even have a loss of her uterus. They can respond and treat the mom appropriately when they feel the mother’s life and physical health is threatened.”

The law states exceptions are allowed when “two physicians certify in writing that, in reasonable medical judgment, the termination of the pregnancy is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman other than a psychological condition.”

If another physician is not available, only one physician is required.

“When we actually looked at the law, we were like, ‘this isn’t going to change the way we practice medicine at all. If we can say, ‘this mother broke her bag of water, she’s at risk for having a life-threatening infection, and that would cause her further harm,’ there’s absolutely no delay per the law,” Lile said.

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©2024 Orlando Sentinel. Visit at orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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