Florida’s law prohibiting most abortions statewide after six weeks has ignited fear among those who say the ban could have catastrophic — and potentially life-threatening — impacts on Black women’s health.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision last summer, access to abortion in the South has become increasingly limited. It’s a region where many of the country’s strictest abortion laws have taken hold, largely pushed by Republican lawmakers. It’s also where over half of the country’s Black population resides, forcing many to contend with what restrictions on access to reproductive health care means when they already face the most devastating maternal health outcomes.
In a move that further threatens access in the South and shrinks options for families, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly signed a bill that puts millions at risk, reproductive health experts say.
“What’s at stake is maternal health,” said Carmen Green, the vice president of research and strategy at the National Birth Equity Collaborative. “Abortion is reproductive health care, and without it, it’s like pulling out a Jenga piece in this stack that’s already unstable for Black maternal health.”
Black women are more likely than their white counterparts to get abortions, data shows, and they are also at least three times more likely nationwide to die due to pregnancy-related causes. That means such a ban is particularly consequential for them, advocates say.
“This ban would prevent four million Florida women of reproductive age from accessing abortion care after six weeks — before many women even know they’re pregnant,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement after the state’s Republican-dominated legislature sent the bill to DeSantis’ desk for a signature.
She added, “This ban would also impact the nearly 15 million women of reproductive age who live in abortion-banning states throughout the South, many of whom have previously relied on travel to Florida as an option to access care.”
Although the ban is not yet in effect due to an ongoing legal battle in a separate case, here is what we know about what it means for access to reproductive health care in the South.
What is Florida’s six-week abortion ban, and when will it take effect?
If the law takes effect, it would place Florida among the most restrictive states in the country for abortion care.
As a result, “there are serious, devastating impacts to reproductive health care,” Green said. “It puts us on a course like a maze with blinders on. It will impact women all across the Southeast.”
Under the legislation, most abortions statewide would be banned after six weeks, which medical experts say is often before many people know they are pregnant. There would be an exception that allows for abortions after up to 15 weeks for victims of rape, incest, and human trafficking — provided a police report, restraining order, or additional medical evidence is included.
“That takes months to get done,” Green said. “It’s going to take months to get over the trauma or to press charges.”
The legislation requires two in-person doctor appointments with a 24-hour waiting period between visits, creating a major logistical burden, even for people who do happen to know they are pregnant within six weeks and who can access care.
Green says some companies have begun putting in place policies that allow employees to take a few extra sick days so they can drive hours to the closest clinic, where they may have to stay for at least two days, to access abortion care.
The most recent six-week ban will not take effect until after the court settles a challenge to last year’s 15-week ban, which did not allow an exception for rape, incest or human trafficking. It did, however, allow exceptions when mother’s health is at serious risk or a fatal fetal abnormality is detected. Abortion care in Florida remains legal until the decision on the previous case comes down.
This law comes in the midst of an intense debate over the legality of the drug mifepristone, often used to end pregnancies or manage miscarriages. A federal judge in Texas ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s long-standing approval of the pill should be revoked. And at nearly the exact same time, a ruling came down in Washington state protecting access to the pill. Last week, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito temporarily extended access to the pill while the justices considered the case, which was a request of the Biden administration.
What does this ban mean for people living in the South?
In the South, where a history of nonconsensual experimentation on Black women has traumatized generations, options for comprehensive reproductive health care are dwindling.
Although abortions remain legal in Florida for up to 15 weeks, the recent law signed by the governor could mean that residents and those who are looking to travel to the state to access reproductive health care might have to look elsewhere.
“The safe haven is looking like North Carolina,” Green said. “That is the southernmost state that still allows abortion with no restrictions.”
And because of the rate at which Black women in the South are obtaining abortion care, experts say they are most likely to face the most dire consequences. In Alabama, data shows that 66% of abortions in 2020 were for Black women. Georgia and Mississippi have similarly high rates. The rate in Florida is somewhat lower at 38%.
Each of those states moved swiftly after the 2022 Dobbs decision, which was a case sparked by a ban in Mississippi, to restrict access to abortion care.
The racial disparity is one caused by a lot of factors, from medical racism to Black women being less likely to have gone through comprehensive sex education. They are also more likely to live in places where it is hard to access effective contraception, increasing the number of unplanned pregnancies. And as bans on abortion stack up across the nation, the number of Black people who will have to take their pregnancy to full term could mean a spike in the already grim maternal mortality rate, experts and advocates say.
As the battle over abortion rights continues, more families in states like Texas are jumping into lawsuits, hoping to set legal precedent that places values on the parents’ lives that are at risk with restricted care, Green said.
“That is something that we have not seen before,” she said. “That is our biggest leverage right now.”