Florida’s 15-week abortion ban bills, explained

Here’s how the bills moving through the state Legislature could affect abortion access, and how legislators picked the 15-week threshold.
Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in December. In Florida, a Republican-backed proposal to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy is similar to a Mississippi law that the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on soon.
Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in December. In Florida, a Republican-backed proposal to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy is similar to a Mississippi law that the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on soon.
Published Feb. 16, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — A Republican-backed proposal to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy would change the reproductive landscape in Florida.

The measures, Senate Bill 146 and House Bill 5, have already been the subject of hours of debate in legislative committees. Dozens of citizens have made the trip to Tallahassee to express their feelings about the bill — including one student group that staged an impromptu protest in a House committee room.

The House will vote on its bill Wednesday.

So far, the debate between supporters of the bill and detractors has fallen along familiar lines. Supporters are focused on the theological and philosophical concern about what they say is ending human life. (The titles of both bills have to do with reducing “fetal and infant mortality.”) Abortion rights advocates, meanwhile, are worried about the practical and social problems that could arise from a state forcing people to carry unwanted or even hazardous pregnancies to term.

Let’s dig into the bill. Here are the seven questions that will get you up to speed on Florida’s abortion debate.

1. At what point in a pregnancy is abortion currently legal in Florida?

Florida law allows abortion until the third trimester — about 24 weeks of pregnancy. That is around the time when a baby begins to become viable outside the womb. However, there are exceptions in state law that allow third-trimester abortions in cases in which the mother’s life could be at risk, or in which the pregnant person risks “irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.”

2. Do these bills come with exceptions in cases of rape or incest?

Neither the House nor the Senate bill comes with an exception to the post-15-week ban in cases of rape, incest or human trafficking.

This worries advocates, who caution that abortion is often not a straightforward decision for a pregnant person.

Samantha Deans, an associate medical director at Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida, testified at a Senate committee hearing in February about an 11-year-old patient of hers who she said was raped by a family member. By the time her pregnancy began to show, the patient was 23 weeks pregnant, Deans said.

“She was too young and too scared to know what had happened to her, let alone to admit to anyone else,” Deans said.

Deans’ patient would have had to carry the pregnancy to term under the provisions of the abortion bills being debated this session.

The bills’ Republican sponsors, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, have said 15 weeks is enough time for pregnant people to make a decision in cases of rape or incest.

“This is not an all-out ban,” Stargel said at a February Senate committee meeting. “An individual has the (ability) to make a decision of what they want to do with their pregnancy prior to the 15 weeks.”

The bill does add one exception for cases in which two different doctors certify that they have detected a “fatal fetal abnormality” — a terminal condition in a fetus.

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3. How would the bill affect abortion access?

In 2021, Florida reported about 75,000 abortions. Of those, about 4,500 were performed in the second trimester — after about 12 weeks of pregnancy. Of those second-trimester abortions, three were performed in cases of incest and 14 were performed in cases of rape.

Kris Lawler, board president for Tampa Bay Abortion Fund, said a 15-week ban passing in Florida would affect access to the procedure across the South because people from states with stricter abortion regulations often travel to Florida.

Related: Florida abortion will affect access across the south, advocates say

Lawler’s organization is a volunteer-run nonprofit that gives money to economically disadvantaged people seeking abortions. Although second-trimester abortions are relatively uncommon overall, Lawler said the bill could affect up to 25 percent of the fund’s callers.

Supporters of the bill, including bill sponsor Grall, say Florida shouldn’t be a destination for abortion for people from other states.

Shelly Holmstrom, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at the University of South Florida, described in an interview three patients who had gotten abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

One mother of two decided to have an abortion after finding out during an anatomy ultrasound performed at 18 weeks that her third child could have a serious medical condition she couldn’t afford to provide for, Holmstrom recalled. The other two would-be mothers made the choice to have abortions after weighing the health risks posed by their complicated pregnancies.

“These are not arrived at easily or cavalierly,” Holmstrom said. “They’re very intentional with counseling from high-risk obstetric doctors. As of now, all of these women have all of the options on the table.”

4. Do these bills have a chance to pass?

They’re almost certain to pass and become law.

Despite staunch opposition from Democratic lawmakers, the bills banning most abortions after 15 weeks appear to be priorities of Republican leaders, including Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor; Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby; and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis called the bill “reasonable.”

One House lawmaker, Rep. Dana Trabulsy, R-Fort Pierce, called the proposal “generous.”

Democrats in the Legislature disagree with that distinction, arguing the bill is extreme and unconstitutional.

The measure will be voted on in the House this week, and it has one more committee to clear in the Senate before that chamber votes on it. If both the House and the Senate pass the bill, and DeSantis signs it, it would take effect July 1.

5. How did lawmakers arrive at the 15-week number?

Republicans have given two different answers to this question. One has to do with what they describe as the advancing understanding around how developed a fetus is at 15 weeks.

At a House committee hearing on the bill in February, Grall said a baby’s heart begins to beat between five and six weeks. She described how the baby’s diaphragm, fingerprints, motor movements, and response to stimuli all begin to develop before the 15-week threshold.

“Dismembering” abortions that end such pregnancies after 15 weeks are “barbaric practices” that are “demeaning to the medical profession,” Grall said.

Some of Grall’s descriptions of the science of fetal development are points of contention in the scientific community. For example, some argue that the signal that is detectable around six weeks isn’t exactly a heartbeat.

Holmstrom noted that fetuses that have been in the womb for 15 weeks cannot survive outside the womb.

The second reason Republicans chose 15 weeks has to do with the next question.

6. Is a 15-week ban constitutional?

Long-standing precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court has held that states are not allowed to restrict abortions before the threshold of viability in a way that places an “undue burden” on a person seeking an abortion.

However, that case law could soon be revised. In December, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. If the Supreme Court allows that law to stand, it could open the door for states like Florida to move forward with federally sanctioned abortion bans.

Republicans have embraced the 15-week number because it’s identical to the standard in the law before the Supreme Court.

Democrats, meanwhile, have argued the Legislature should hold off on a sweeping abortion policy change until the court rules on the Mississippi law.

“There’s a case before the Supreme Court right now that could go either way. What are we doing right now having this discussion?” Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, asked at a January committee hearing.

Even if the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court finds a 15-week ban acceptable, it’s not clear the Florida Supreme Court would rule the same way. Florida’s courts have been protective of abortion rights for decades because of a provision in the state constitution that protects a citizen’s right to privacy.

7. What else is in the bills?

The bills aren’t just about abortion. The House bill would give $1.6 million to the state’s Department of Health to create regional committees to review fetal and infant mortality. The Senate bill would give $260,000 for this purpose.

The bills would also require a state tobacco use education program to add a focus on pregnant people. And they would require abortion providers to tally the number of pregnancies terminated by medications and submit that figure to the state government every month.

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