TALLAHASSEE — In a historic moment for the anti-abortion movement, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed a measure banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The measure, House Bill 5, contains the strictest prohibition passed in Florida during the Roe v. Wade era. It does not come with exceptions for pregnancies that are the result of rape, incest or human trafficking. Under the law, people can still obtain an abortion if their health is threatened or if their baby has a “fatal fetal abnormality.”
Although DeSantis’ signature came more than a month after the Legislature passed the bill in early March, there was never any doubt he would approve the measure.
“We believe that all these kids deserve an opportunity,” DeSantis said during a bill signing in Kissimmee on Thursday morning. “We’re not just giving lip service to that, we’re actually signing legislation.”
The legislation takes effect July 1.
With Republicans controlling every facet of Florida’s government, the 15-week ban sailed through the state House and Senate. Democrats and even some student protesters tried repeatedly to delay or tweak the measure, to no avail.
“For politicians like Ron DeSantis to put themselves between patients and health care providers making personal medical decisions is outrageous,” Stephanie Fraim, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said in a statement. “If these politicians think the fight against this abortion ban is over, they are sadly mistaken.”
The new law is a major departure from state precedent. Before, Florida allowed abortion until the third trimester — about 24 weeks of pregnancy. It’s unclear whether the 15-week ban will withstand the scrutiny of the courts, and it remains to be seen how it will affect Floridians seeking an abortion.
Here are three things we do know.
1. The U.S. Supreme Court could decide Florida’s fate soon
In December, the Supreme Court heard the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. When it rules, it will determine the fate of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban — the ban on which Florida’s new law was based.
After the Mississippi measure was signed into law in 2018, a federal district court and an appeals court held that it was unconstitutional. However, an appeal sent the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.
The Supreme Court could do a number of things in its ruling. It could strike down 15-week bans. Justices could narrowly uphold Mississippi’s law, allowing similar 15-week bans like Florida’s to stand. Or the court could overturn the federal precedent set by 1973′s Roe v. Wade case and allow states to regulate abortion with little to no federal restrictions.
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Last summer, DeSantis filed a brief asking the court to overturn Roe.
If the court obliges, it could undo nearly 50 years of precedent that has held that under the U.S. Constitution, states are not allowed to pass abortion bans that restrict access to the procedure before a baby can survive outside of the womb.
If Roe falls, Florida could be in line to pass even more stringent abortion restrictions. Other states, such as Kentucky, Texas and Oklahoma, have recently passed measures banning or all but banning the procedure.
2. State courts pose a hurdle for the 15-week ban, but not an insurmountable one
A 1980 state constitutional amendment added by Florida voters holds that “every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life.”
Since a landmark 1989 Florida Supreme Court ruling in the case “In re T.W.,” Florida courts have held that because of that privacy clause, the state constitution offers stronger abortion protections than the U.S. Constitution — which has no similar clause.
“Florida’s privacy provision is clearly implicated in a woman’s decision of whether or not to continue her pregnancy,” that ruling read.
That means that even if the U.S. Supreme Court allows Florida’s 15-week abortion ban to stand, the law could still be struck down by the Florida Supreme Court.
“There is no way to uphold a 15-week ban on abortion without overruling three decades of (Florida) Supreme Court precedent,” Julia Kaye, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a March interview.
The ACLU announced Thursday that it will sue over the Florida ban, as the organization did this week in Kentucky after that state passed its own set of abortion restrictions.
However, Florida’s highest court today looks far different than it did in 1989. None of the seven sitting justices were appointed by Democrats, and three were appointed by DeSantis himself.
John Stemberger, an attorney and the president of the socially conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said the 1989 court misinterpreted the privacy clause.
“My hope would be that they see the original intent of the amendment, which was informational privacy,” Stemberger said Thursday. “I think there’s a good chance that the court is going to overturn ‘In re T.W.’”
3. Abortion access will look far different in Florida
The vast majority of Florida abortions will not be affected by HB 5. In 2021, Florida saw some 80,000 abortions performed. About 4,800 of those — 6 percent — occurred in the second trimester, after about 12 weeks of pregnancy.
However, advocates say the abortion provision will harm pregnant people in Florida. Most anatomy ultrasounds happen at 18 weeks. If a problem is discovered with the fetus at that point, the bill DeSantis signed into law directs the pregnant person to get permission from two different doctors before they can obtain an abortion.
Danielle Tallafuss, a mother of two from Oviedo, obtained an abortion at nearly 23 weeks pregnant in 2020 after doctors discovered her baby would be born with a serious heart condition. Had the new law been on the books at the time, she likely would not have been able to terminate her pregnancy.
“My on-the-spot reaction is devastation,” Tallafuss wrote in a text message Thursday when asked about DeSantis signing the bill.
She also noted that earlier this week, a Leon County circuit judge allowed a 24-hour abortion waiting period to go into effect — the latest twist in a seven-year legal saga over that 2015 law.
The bill DeSantis signed Thursday also provides $1.6 million in new annual funding for regional “fetal and infant mortality review committees,” which both proponents and opponents of the abortion ban have said they support.
Conservatives have long fretted about how Florida clinics provide abortions to people from nearby states with more restrictive laws.
“Florida is no longer a destination state to take the life of an unborn child,” Stemberger said.