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Florida: What the 15-Week Abortion Ban Means for Those Seeking Reproductive Care

This past summer, after the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled on the Dobbs versus Jackson Women’s Health Organization abortion case, overturning the 1973 Roe v Wade decision in the process, reproductive rights and care took turn for the worse throughout the southeastern US, where the situation already was not good. In one case, a 16 year old who was 11 weeks pregnant, appeared before a judge in an effort to obtain what’s called a judicial bypass. In states that require minors seeking abortion either to notify a parent, or to obtain parental consent, a judicial bypass is a way to avoid such requirements. In order to grant a teen permission to have an abortion without involving one of her parents, a judge must empathize with the minor’s reason for not involving a parent, or for being unable to involve a parent, but the process also allows judges to consider whether the teen is mature enough to decide for herself to have an abortion. It’s crazy, because, how could any judge decide that a minor is not mature enough to choose abortion while implying that the same minor is mature enough to become a mother? Normally, judges rule in favor of the petitioning minor for this reason, but that’s not what happened to the 16 year-old in Florida. In this case, the teen had no parents to inform. She had a guardian who was highly supportive and would have given consent for an abortion, had the state laws permitted such consent by a guardian. But the judge ruled that the teen was not mature enough to decide to have an abortion. I don’t know if the teen was able to return to court to appeal and obtain a better decision, but if the process took more than a few weeks, she then would be up against another problem: Florida’s law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks gestation. Then, her only option would be to travel out-of-state and from Florida, one needs to travel far, such as to North Carolina, or the southern part of Illinois. Additionally, because the teen was in her 11th week when the judge denied the judicial bypass, she missed the last opportunity to receive a medication abortion, which can be offered up to 77 days gestation. Thus, from that point, whether she obtained a judicial bypass in a later court appearance or traveled to another state, she would need a procedure abortion, which is more expensive for whomever covers the cost. In terms of safety, the earlier the abortion, the safer it is, though in all cases a properly performed abortion is safer than carrying a pregnancy to term.

Meanwhile, since July 1, when the Sunshine State implemented the 15-week abortion ban, which allows no exceptions for rape or incest, there was a case involving an 11 year-old girl. Impregnated by her stepfather, the girl did not understand what was happening, and her mother did not figure out the problem, test the girl and discover the pregnancy until she was already in the 20th week. This made the girl ineligible for an abortion in Florida, given the state’s lack of exceptions for rape and incest. Such situations may be rare, but they fly in the faces of those who might argue that a 15-week allows enough time for rape victims to respond to the crime, get a police report, and get medical treatment, including pregnancy termination. By the way, given that such situations tend to force victims who are fortunate enough to find help to travel out of state, the lack of exceptions for rape also can make it harder for law enforcement to investigate the cases and go after the perpetrators.

Now during our tour of US states in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision states, we have discussed some states that are very supportive or abortion and reproductive rights, both for their own residents and those from out-of-state. Such states include New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, and Washington, and a host of others. But the southeast and south central US is a vast region where anti-choice sentiment and laws are strong. In contrast with the various pro-choice states, there are some highly anti-choice states, such as Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. But there also are states, such as Kansas, Alaska, and Montana, where abortion rights are being upheld because of either the state constitution or the court system, despite there being strong majorities of anti-choice politicians in the state legislatures.

Given this perspective, we can consider Florida a kind of battleground state, where the future of abortion rights are uncertain. Anti-choice politicians in the Florida legislature, as well as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are pushing for policies even more restrictive than the state’s current 15-week ban. Pro-choice Florida legislators are trying to end the 15 week ban and to get the state’s law to a Roe v Wade frame in which abortion would be unrestricted up to the point of fetal viability, which generally starts around 24-26 weeks. But the chances of achieving this, along with the chances of preventing Florida from adding further restrictions or prohibiting abortion completely, rest greatly on the upcoming election in November. Along with various Florida state legislative seats, this election will decide one US Senate seat, all districts of the US House of Representatives, plus Florida’s Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. In the case of the gubernatorial race, DeSantis is being challenged by former Governor, former US Representative Charlie Crist, who will support policies aligning with reproductive rights. Make sure to get out and vote, which can affect, not only Florida, but also the situation in other states of the US southeast, where women could be eyeing the Sunshine State as an abortion destination.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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