New Florida abortion ban could have practical and political impacts

Governor Ron DeSantis is showing support of a stricter ban on abortions introduced this week by state lawmakers, which would make it a crime to provide an abortion past six weeks’ gestational age

Ron DeSantis
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media following his State of the State address on March 7, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida.Phil Sears (AP)

Less than a year after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an expected GOP presidential contender, signed a ban on abortions after the 15-week mark of pregnancy, he’s showing support for an even stricter ban introduced this week by state lawmakers. His position could have implications on the availability of abortion not only in Florida but across the South –and also figure into the 2024 presidential race.

The current Florida law

In June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, giving control over abortion to the states. Some conservative legislatures passed bills years in advance that would impose abortion bans if Roe were overturned. Florida wasn’t among those earlier states, but lawmakers acted after a leak of a draft version of the new abortion ruling, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in January 2022.

Florida lawmakers agreed to ban abortion after 15 weeks, with an exception for the life of the woman but not for rape or incest. DeSantis signed it in April, and it took effect in July.

The new proposal

The deeper ban, proposed as Florida’s legislative session opened on Tuesday, would make it a crime to provide an abortion past six weeks’ gestational age.

There would be an exception to save the life of the woman and exceptions in the case of pregnancy caused by rape or incest until 15 weeks of pregnancy. In those cases, the woman would have to provide documentation such as a medical record, restraining order or police report.

The measure would also require that the drugs used in medication-induced abortions – which make up the majority of those provided nationally – could be dispensed only in person by a physician.

DeSantis this week called the rape and incest provisions “sensible” and reiterated his support for tighter restrictions, saying, “We welcome pro-life legislation.”

If Republican lawmakers can agree on the details, it’s likely to become law.

DeSantis was easily re-elected in November, and at the same time, Republicans gained veto-proof majorities in the state Legislature.

What it could mean on the ground

With bans on abortion at all stages of pregnancy in nearby Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and a ban on terminating pregnancies in Georgia after cardiac activity can be detected – around six weeks - Florida has become a haven for people in the region seeking abortions.

A ban at the gestational age of six weeks would mean fewer women traveling to Florida for abortions and more looking at going even further away, to places including North Carolina and Illinois.

“A six-week ban is a really substantial shock to practical abortion access across the South,” said Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College in Vermont who studies abortion access.

There would also be an impact for Florida residents.

Nationally, only about 4% of abortions occur after the 15-week mark, but most of them happen after 6 weeks and 6 days.

Myers said that in states that have had six-week bans, it appears about half the women seeking abortions have been able to get them.

What it could mean for DeSantis

Abortion bans are important for many Republican primary voters and the ban DeSantis signed into law last year was far less aggressive than action in most GOP-controlled states. Thirteen states now have effective bans on abortion at all stages of pregnancy and another half-dozen have similar laws on the books but have had enforcement stopped by courts.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate, was asked in a CBS News interview last year whether she would nudge DeSantis to further restrict abortion. “I think that talking about situations and making statements is incredibly important,” she said, “but also taking action and governing and bringing policies that protect life are even more important because that’s what truly will save lives.”

A six-week ban would move Florida closer to what other GOP-controlled states have done on abortion.

That could be important as DeSantis presents himself as the architect of conservative policies in a state that he says is doing what the nation should.

The GOP legislative agenda for coming months there includes making guns more available, keeping immigrants who are in the country illegally out of the state, telling teachers which pronouns they can use for students and criminalizing some drag shows.

He is expected to launch his presidential candidacy formally sometime after the session wraps in May, though the wheels are already in motion. He’s speaking in the early nominating state of Iowa on Friday and a former official in president Donald Trump’s White House on Thursday launched a group encouraging DeSantis to run for president.

While aggressive abortion bans are popular with many conservatives, they are considered unpopular among other crucial voting blocs – especially suburban women who play an outsized role in general elections.

In 2022, there were ballot measures dealing with abortion in six states, including generally conservative Kansas, Kentucky and Montana. In each of them, the abortion-rights side prevailed.

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