Florida’s 6-week abortion ban could displace thousands each month in a region where access is already severely limited

Florida’s 6-week abortion ban could displace thousands each month in a region where access is already severely limited

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CNN
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A six-week ban on abortion set to take effect in Florida next month will severely limit abortion access in a state that is one of the country’s most populous and one that has become a key access point amid widespread restrictions in the region. Providers nationwide have adapted to a fractured and rapidly changing abortion landscape in the two years since the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, but the shift in Florida is particularly significant.

Last year, 1 of every 3 abortions in the South – and about 1 in every 12 nationwide – happened in Florida, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive health that supports abortion rights. More than 9,000 people traveled from other states to get an abortion in Florida in 2023, the data shows, at least twice as many as in 2020.

“It’s devastating,” said Amber Gavin, vice president of advocacy and operations for A Woman’s Choice, an independent abortion clinic with locations in Florida and North Carolina. She said her “heart dropped” when she saw a ruling posted on the Florida Supreme Court’s website Monday that paved the way for a six-week ban to take effect in 30 days.

“It’s just disastrous for our patients and, honestly, abortion access in the Southeast.”

Many women don’t know that they’re pregnant at six weeks after their last menstrual period, and other states that have enacted laws with this early gestation limit saw significant cuts to abortion care. In Texas, the number of abortions provided within the formal health care system dropped by about half after Senate Bill 8 took effect in 2021, and there were thousands more births than expected in the following year. In South Carolina, there was a 70% decrease in abortions just one month after the state enforced a six-week limit.

It’s difficult to predict how abortion trends might change after Florida’s law takes effect May 1, said Isaac Maddow-Zimet, a data scientist with the Guttmacher Institute who is a lead researcher for an ongoing project tracking abortions in the US. People who may have planned to get an abortion in Florida could try to get to Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina or Virginia, depending on their home state and gestational age – but increasing travel distances could mean many aren’t able get anywhere at all, he said.

“In terms of the number of people impacted, this certainly has the potential to be one of the most impactful policy changes that has happened in the recent months – and that’s not to minimize these other policy changes, which also have caused enormous amounts of harm and real barriers to access,” he said. “It’s all so interrelated. As more and more barriers to access happen, and especially in the Southeast, and as options for care become more and more limited, it really exacerbates these obstacles even more than we would otherwise have thought.”

Of the 16 states in the South, nine have banned abortion. Florida will join Georgia and South Carolina with a six-week ban. This leaves just three states in this US Census region – Delaware, Maryland and Virginia – where abortion remains legal past the first trimester and North Carolina with a 12-week limit.

In 2023, there were about 7,000 abortions in Florida each month, Guttmacher data shows. And with a significant cut to access to start next month, abortion support networks and providers in states where abortion is less restricted are anticipating a surge in need.

“We always have multiple contingency plans, unfortunately, because of the landscape that we offer care in,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and chief executive officer of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider with clinics in multiple states. “We knew this decision was going to come down sometime soon, but we didn’t know when.”

For now, she says, she is focused on building capacity in established clinics in Virginia and Maryland to help prepare to for people who might be displaced from Florida.

“That looks like adding days into our schedule, adding hours to our schedule, being sure we have enough physicians and staff to be able to accommodate an increased patient volume,” Hagstrom Miller said.

Existing clinics are not at capacity, and most have appointments available within a couple of days, she said. But a new clinic right on the southern border of Virginia is also under consideration.

“We’re looking at areas along that Virginia-North Carolina border and Virginia-Tennessee border just because we know people are coming up those interstates from the South,” Hagstrom Miller said. “It might be about two hours closer for some people than our other sites.”

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Illinois has also become a key access point for abortion. In 2023, there were nearly 37,000 abortions provided to patients from out of state, Guttmacher data shows – more than in any other state.

For people who are traveling from the South for an abortion, Chicago is often a cheaper option than some other cities, and folks from the South may be more likely to have a family or community network there, said Qudsiyyah Shariyf, deputy director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, an organization that provides referrals and funds to people who are facing barriers in accessing abortion services.

The nonprofit has bolstered programs and capacity in direct anticipation of this decision from Florida’s high court, and staffers estimate that they’ll need an additional $100,000 to absorb the surge of Floridians and other Southerners seeking support for an abortion.

“Since 2019, we haven’t had to turn someone away. In order to make that sustainable with the influx of Floridians and other Southerners, we are going to need more investment from the state, from the federal government and from our legislators,” Shariyf said. “We’re focused on meeting the immediate need but hope that we can use this opportunity build awareness and support.”

Florida’s current 15-week abortion ban will shift to a six-week limit in about a month, but voters there will have a chance to vote on an amendment to the state’s constitution on the ballot in November that could protect abortion rights through “viability,” which is typically considered to be 23 weeks.

Gavin says she is hopeful that voters will turn out to support reproductive rights. But she’s seen the burden that current gestational limitations have placed on patients and clinic staff, and the new law will be in effect for six months before the election.

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“We’re already seeing what’s happening with our patients who are past 15 weeks. It’s gut-wrenching to turn patients away,” Gavin said. “This six-week ban leaves an even narrower window for people to access care, and I think it’s going to be too late for so many. I am concerned about the thousands of people who access abortion care in Florida, especially the most marginalized communities.”

Many abortion clinics like A Woman’s Choice also offer ultrasounds that can help determine gestational age, birth control and STI testing, along with resources and referrals for services they don’t or can’t provide.

“We plan to remain open and continue to provide abortion care as long as we can,” she said. “One way that the community can support us and clinics in Florida is to continue to get their general care at clinics like ours so that we can continue to remain open.”

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