Why Ron DeSantis’s New Abortion Restrictions Will Be Felt Far Beyond Florida

Why Ron DeSantis’s New Abortion Restrictions Will Be Felt Far Beyond Florida

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On its busier days, the volunteer-run Tampa Bay Abortion Fund receives up to 15 calls requesting support. Callers might seek money for abortions or need assistance traveling to a clinic—whatever the ask, the fund shoulders it. Alongside the four other abortion funds based in Florida, the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund helps provide a patchwork safety net for those who need abortions but have little other recourse. Calls come not only from Florida but outside, too: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and—especially since last September, when Senate Bill 8 went into effect—Texas.

But the picture of abortion access will soon grow complicated in Florida with a 15-week ban, the state’s most restrictive yet. Just two months after it was introduced, House Bill 5—which bans abortions after 15 weeks, no exceptions—passed the Florida Senate on March 2. The bill now awaits action from Governor Ron DeSantis, who has made his stance on H.B. 5 viciously clear. He had said such a restriction—which will mostly hurt those with fewer resources in a state that already denies Medicaid funding of abortions—“makes a lot of sense,” and indicated his intent to sign the bill. H.B. 5 won’t just strain abortion access in Florida but in the South as a whole.

“We were hoping that Florida could be a haven for the South,” Kelly Nelson, founder of the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund, said. Florida, after all, is unique: There is no mandatory waiting period—a circuit judge, who has since retired, enjoined this policy in 2018. Waiting periods mean that a patient must make multiple trips to a clinic in order to have an abortion. Florida also has the right to privacy baked into its state constitution, which would have worked in favor of abortion rights in Florida. (Roe established the right to abortion through the right to privacy.)

But even if the constitutional right to privacy was what made Florida such a “haven” for abortions, any such right is being whittled away by an increasingly conservative—and extreme—political base in Florida. In 2019, DeSantis replaced liberal retirees on the state Supreme Court, holdovers from Florida’s bygone Democratic years, with conservative judges intent on curtailing abortion rights. “The right to privacy has been attacked by anti-abortion extremists year after year with a clear strategy to change Florida’s Constitution,” said Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, who leads the Florida Access Network. Piñeiro pointed to S.B. 404, a parental consent law, and the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that just passed the state legislature as indications that any such right to privacy is no longer.

All the foundations are in place—the judiciary, the state legislature—for H.B. 5 to likely resist any legal challenge. “They’ve set this up so that this ban will go through, and we have pretty much zero hope for any blockage of the ban,” Nelson said. All Nelson can do now is plan ahead for the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund. That means new strategies. While the fund had hoped it would be able to support more clients from Southern states, that plan must change. “We were building capacity to accept from other states,” Nelson said, but now “that building of capacity has switched over to getting all of our clients out of state starting 15 weeks.”

Nelson estimates that as many as 40 percent of the Southern clients her fund serves this year will have to travel out of state for their procedures. Fran Sachs, who leads volunteers at the Florida-based Emergency Medical Assistance, also expects to send more callers out of state. Sachs anticipates her fund will become something like a “high-stakes travel agency” for abortions, much like the funds in post-S.B. 8 Texas. Her fund, like Nelson’s, is planning to shepherd its clients out into the Midwest and Northeast areas—New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia—to access abortion care. Right now, Emergency Medical Assistance is trying to work out logistics and strengthen connections with more hotels and clinics in the North.

Abortion bans are never quite bans outright: They’re bans only on those who cannot afford to circumvent them. They privilege the affluent. They hurt the poor. People of color are disproportionately affected by these bans. Just imagine all the considerations involved in traveling out of state for a procedure: You’ll need to have enough money for a flight and hotel, to be able to afford to take the requisite days off from work, and—because many of those who seek abortions are already parents themselves—to find someone to take care of family in your absence.

That’s not even to mention how badly the crisis of the pandemic has affected abortion access. Alexa Lane, a counselor at the Presidential Women’s Center, a clinic in West Florida, is anxious about H.B. 5—but she is already worried about how noticeably dire the circumstances of her clinic’s patients have been since the onset of the pandemic. Many of the Presidential Women’s Center’s recent patients, Lane observed, are in a “worse situation economically”: Not only may many more be unable to afford their abortions, but Lane expressed that her clinic saw more single mothers than ever before. And because her clinic provides holistic support for its patients, Lane also noticed more patients sought resources for domestic violence.

Lane’s clinic has not yet made adjustments for the 15-week ban, but she knows they will need to, and soon. “We’ve already started to think about preparing really difficult conversations with patients,” Lane said. It’s often those who work at clinics—providers, counselors like Lane—who must inform their patients that their pregnancies are too far along for their abortions to be provided in state. All a clinic can do at that point is connect their patients to resources outside of state: other clinics, funds. These conversations are so difficult because they are often with patients “who are already in a very desperate situation. Some [patients] have the means to travel, and many will not. There isn’t a system to support these pregnant people and their families.”

H.B. 5, though, should come as little surprise given the rapidly growing hostility toward abortions in Florida’s legislative region. In 2015, then-Governor Rick Scott attempted to impose a 24-hour mandatory waiting period, which the courts blocked. The year after, Scott also cut funding for reproductive health care centers in the state. DeSantis, of course, is no better. In 2020, DeSantis signed S.B. 404—the parental consent law Piñiero mentioned—into effect. “Heartbeat” bills were introduced in 2019 and 2021. H.B. 5 itself is based on the 15-week ban in Mississippi. (When it comes to anti-abortion legislation, lawmakers are callowly uncreative: They often model, almost entirely, one ban on another.) It was only a matter of time until H.B. 5 happened. Nelson was not surprised, nor was Piñeiro, Sachs, or Lane.

This ban was also unsurprising to Oriaku Njoku, co-founder of ARC-Southeast, a fund broadly serving the Southern region. Florida was always a “hybrid,” Njoku described to me, in that, over the past few years, the state could have seemingly gone any way in terms of abortion policy. But still, H.B. 5 is no shock, and all it means is that ARC-Southeast will, like the state-based funds, adjust its strategy to ensure abortion access in the South continues. ARC-Southeast is taking the lead of state-based funds like the Tampa Bay Fund, Florida Access Network, and Emergency Medical Assistance and offering ancillary support to these funds where possible.

H.B. 5 is just one more wound to abortion access before the event on everyone’s mind: the demise of Roe, which will no doubt fall in the Supreme Court’s hearing of Dobbs v. Jackson this year. To anyone familiar with the history of abortion access, however, Roe gave the right to abortion but not equal access. The Hyde Amendment, which passed three years after Roe and has been approved by Congress year after year for nearly four decades, has always cemented the “right” to abortion down class and race lines, by blocking federal funds from being used for abortions. Senate Democrats omitted the amendment last year, for the first time in its history—but the Hyde Amendment appears to be back in the spending package this year.

Last September, an abortion provider in Texas told me: “It’s been over 15 years that we have been sounding the alarm in Texas and in surrounding states that Roe is at war, Roe has not saved us in our communities, and that Roe is not the law of the land in practice.” These words are ever true in thinking about what Roe means in the bigger picture. Only the wealthy and the white have ever had the proper “right” to abortion, access and all. Njoku echoed this in our conversation, noting: “The post-Roe reality is actually the lived experiences of people right now in the South.”

Which is to say: Our “post-Roe” world does not have to feel dangerous. Abortions will not stop even if Roe falls. Many of us, particularly in the South, already live in a post-Roe world. The work for abortion access to which these funds commit themselves will and must continue just the same, with or without the legal right to abortion. (Think about the Jane Collective, an underground network that helped provide access to abortions pre-Roe. People have always worked to provide abortion access, legal or otherwise.) Njoku added that through collective work, “we can also imagine a post-Roe future in which we can have all the abortions we want.”

Everyone I spoke to emphasized that the work for abortion access begins on the ground: working, volunteering, and donating to funds that receive the callers swept to the margins by these bans. Anger is deserved; panic, however, is far from what Nelson wants. “My wish is that instead of hysteria, people focus on what they can do now. We have an unfriendly Supreme Court, we have an unfriendly Florida judiciary, we have abortion bans that are hitting us—what are we going to do about that? What are we going to do to help people have access?”

Each year, the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund has seen more and more calls for help. This year, Nelson anticipates her fund will receive close to 1,000 callers, based on demand in these months alone. But she remains soberly optimistic: Abortion access can, and will, prevail—with work. “There are barriers everywhere,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a 15-week ban or that someone can’t take off work. They’re all still limits on access. And we need to work on all of those barriers.”

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