Health Care

What Florida's Six-Week Abortion Ban Means for Residents and Out-of-State Patients

"For women in the South, this is really devastating," says Stephanie Fraim, the president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

By Elizabeth Djinis April 24, 2023

It took about a year for Florida to go from having one of the least restrictive abortion policies in the United States to having one of the most restrictive.

Until last year, abortions were allowed in the state until a woman was 24 weeks pregnant. Then, in the span of less than a month, the Florida Legislature passed a 15-week ban and the state’s courts approved a 24-hour waiting period for abortions. More recently, the Legislature has banned most abortions after six weeks from one's last menstrual period, amounting to what opponents call a near-total ban.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure earlier this month. “We are proud to support life and family in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said in a press release about S.B. 300. “I applaud the Legislature for passing the Heartbeat Protection Act that expands pro-life protections and provides additional resources for young mothers and families.”

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, did not respond to requests for comment. Most legislators in Sarasota and Manatee counties voted for the ban, including Gruters, state Sen. Jim Boyd and state Reps. Will Robinson, Tommy Gregory and James Buchanan, all Republicans. State Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, did not cast a vote.

“I can’t think of any bill that’s going to provide more protections to more people who are more vulnerable than this piece of legislation,” said Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Valrico, according to the Associated Press. Beltran's district covers parts of Manatee County.

“I believe in the sanctity of life,” said Boyd, according to WUSF. “And I believe that when we’re elected to these positions, that’s one of our greatest charges, is to protect life."

Despite the law's title, the text itself does not use the word “heartbeat” other than in its name. The language is direct: “A physician may not knowingly perform or induce a termination of pregnancy if the physician determines the gestational age of the fetus is more than six weeks.” Performing an abortion in violation of the new law would be a third-degree felony and become more serious for the provider if the pregnant woman dies.

The law allows for a number of exceptions—if a pregnant woman’s life or major bodily function is at risk, if there is a fatal fetal abnormality and the pregnancy has not progressed to the third trimester, or if the pregnancy is a “result of rape, incest or human trafficking” and the gestational age is not more than 15 weeks.

It's unknown when the ban will take effect. That date largely hinges on a pending Florida Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida’s lawsuit against the state’s previous 15-week ban. Should that lawsuit be unsuccessful, the six-week ban will go into effect 30 days after the court rules.

The court's decision could come within the next few months, says Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The court has yet to schedule oral arguments in the case.

If the six-week ban does go into effect, abortion providers and legal experts say it will make it nearly impossible for pregnant women to receive the care they may need. Six weeks refers to the time that has elapsed from a woman's last period, which translates to about two weeks after a missed period. That means most people will have a narrow window to discover they are pregnant, schedule a preliminary appointment for an abortion and wait at least 24 hours before having the procedure. 

While Republicans have touted the bill’s exceptions for rape, incest and human trafficking, Gross says that characterization is misleading. The state's previous policy allowed abortion up to 15 weeks regardless of the cause. This new legislation requires a form of evidence—a restraining order, police report or medical record, for example—that the pregnancy actually occurred due to rape, incest or human trafficking. 

Poll results suggest a majority of Floridians don’t support a six-week ban without exceptions. An early March poll conducted by the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab showed that 62 percent of Floridians would strongly oppose a six-week ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. Roughly 61 percent of Republicans said they would either strongly or somewhat oppose such a measure, and only 13 percent of Floridians said they would strongly support one.

If enacted, the ban will affect Florida's status as a destination for out-of-state visitors seeking abortions. In the six months following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Florida experienced the largest increase of any state in the number of abortions performed by a clinician. The state saw almost 7,200 more abortions between last July and last December when compared with monthly averages from April and May, according to a report from the Society of Family Planning.

That data is echoed by what some physicians are seeing on the ground. Most counties in Florida don’t have an abortion care provider, so even many in-state patients have to travel to receive an abortion, says Dr. Sujatha Prabhakaran, an abortion care physician for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida and its former chief medical officer.

Prabhakaran says the increase in out-of-state patients dates back to at least September 2021, when Texas’ heartbeat ban went into effect. Before that, it was rare to see a patient from out of state. Now at least one is present in nearly every clinic session.

“Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama outlawed abortion completely and Georgia has a true heartbeat ban,” says Stephanie Fraim, the president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “The entire South is coming to northern Florida. For women in the South, this is really devastating.”

Confusion around the six-week ban is already affecting Planned Parenthood patients. Prabhakaran recently consulted with a teacher who assumed she was six weeks pregnant based on her period. Her ultrasound revealed that she was a few days farther along. She was shaken by the news, thinking the six-week ban was already in effect.

“When we talked to her, she was relieved and grateful that she could get the care that she needed,” Prabhakaran says. “But then she asked me, ‘Well, what are women going to do?'”

Prabhakaran also worries about patients with fetal abnormalities who won’t be able to obtain an abortion in Florida. Already, she has had to turn away patients who are just shy of the 15-week mark and don’t meet the statute’s guidelines.

To Prabhakaran, the six-week ban is not just a “horror story,” but “a death sentence,” as she wrote in an op-ed for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “The one thing that I keep saying is abortion is health care,” she says. “When you limit access to health care for people, their health outcomes are worse. It should be that simple.”

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have estimated that a nationwide abortion ban would increase the number of maternal deaths by 24 percent. In a state-by-state analysis, Florida and Georgia showed the highest potential increases should they ban all abortions: It was estimated that maternal deaths would rise by 29 percent.

Opponents don’t plan to let the six-week ban go into effect without a fight. Gross can’t say whether the ACLU will pursue litigation, but she says the organization is “watching it very closely and [we are] considering all of our options to ensure that Floridian reproductive freedoms are protected.”

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