UPDATE: Thursday night, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed this bill into law. Read more here.
A ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy has been signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a late-night private ceremony in his office.
The bill, given final approval by the Legislature on Thursday only hours earlier, could drastically limit the number of abortions performed in Florida, effectively banning the procedure. Republicans have praised the legislation as a win for life. Democrats say it could mean women, particularly those without means to get abortions elsewhere, could be forced to carry out unwanted pregnancies.
Though DeSantis has signed the bill into law, the ban will not go into effect immediately because of an ongoing court case that will determine Florida’s abortion future.
Here’s what to know about the bill, SB 300.
Are there exceptions to the six-week cutoff?
Currently, Florida law allows abortion up until 15 weeks of pregnancy. There are no exceptions for cases like rape. The bill would limit abortion to six weeks of gestation, but says pregnancies that are the result of rape, incest or human trafficking can be terminated up to 15 weeks.
However, to use that exception, a police or medical report, court record or other documentation would need to be provided showing evidence of the crime.
Democrats said crimes like rape and incest are widely underreported and suggested amendments that would allow sworn statements instead of the other documentation. But Republicans rejected those amendments.
As in Florida’s current law, the bill maintains exceptions allowing abortions later in pregnancy for medical necessity. In the majority of cases, two physicians must attest that the abortion is needed to save the woman’s life or to avoid “substantial and irreversible” physical impairment. In emergencies, it requires one physician.
Why was the six-week threshold chosen?
The Senate sponsor of the bill said the measure targets abortions after six weeks of pregnancy because that’s when the embryo has a heartbeat, and she named the legislation the “Heartbeat Protection Act.”
But whether that sound is in fact a heartbeat, as proponents of the bill say, is up for debate.
According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “it is clinically inaccurate to use the word ‘heartbeat’ to describe the sound that can be heard on ultrasound in very early pregnancy.”
Opponents of the bill also note that many people don’t know they’re pregnant at six weeks, and said those that do would have little time to get an abortion before the cutoff.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, people using an at-home test can generally detect pregnancy about four weeks from the point of the last period. Blood tests can detect it slightly earlier.
What are other Florida abortion laws?
If enacted, Florida’s six-week ban would significantly increase restrictions on abortion access. But it would come alongside other requirements that already provide hurdles to seeking the procedure.
Florida law requires people seeking an abortion to have two appointments at least 24 hours apart. At the first appointment, a chance to view the ultrasound must be offered in most cases. The delay is based on a law that was passed in 2015 but only enacted last year after a long court battle.
Both appointments must be done in person, and must be done by a physician. In Georgia, which has a six-week ban, the first appointment can be done by telehealth.
Minors seeking an abortion must get parental consent in most instances.
If a minor feels they cannot get parental consent, they can petition a judge to allow them a waiver to get an abortion. That waiver is supposed to be ruled on within three business days. If it is denied, the child can appeal, and that appellate court is supposed to rule within seven days.
What does this mean for abortion access in the South?
Critics of Florida’s six-week measure have said that it not only means Florida women will be cut off from abortion access, but that people across the broader South will feel the effects as well.
Those pushing for the bill have celebrated that fact.
If Florida’s six-week law were to take effect, South Carolina would be the closest state in driving distance where abortions are allowed later into pregnancy. Current South Carolina law allows abortions up to 22 weeks of pregnancy. South Carolina did have a six-week ban, but that state’s Supreme Court struck it down early this year, saying it violated their constitution’s right to privacy.
That doesn’t mean South Carolina elected officials have a warm attitude toward abortion — a group of Republicans in that state’s Legislature proposed a bill that would consider aborted fetuses victims of homicide, and could apply the death penalty to women who have abortions. (Some Republicans have since withdrawn their support.)
North Carolina currently limits abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy, though its Legislature is considering rolling back the cutoff point to 12 weeks.
Georgia has a six-week ban in place, though its provisions are slightly less restrictive than Florida’s because of telehealth access for the first mandatory counseling appointment.
Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana all have total abortion bans in place with narrow exceptions for medical necessity.
What else is in the bill?
The legislation clarifies that medication to induce an abortion can only be given in person by a physician.
Florida law already effectively prohibits telehealth from being used to prescribe medication abortion because of mandatory in-person appointments, but the bill would put that into statute. Nearly half of Florida’s abortions in 2021 were done via medication abortion instead of through a surgical procedure.
The bill also prohibits state funds from being used to pay for someone’s travel out of state for an abortion unless there are federal laws that require it or unless there needs to be “legitimate emergency medical procedures” to save the woman’s life or avoid serious harm.
The bill also designates $5 million for the Department of Health’s family planning program, which includes contraceptive access, and designates $25 million to the Florida Pregnancy Care Network Inc.
What is the Florida Pregnancy Care Network?
The $20 million boost in funding for the Florida Pregnancy Care Network has come under fire from Democrats because the centers under this network aim to dissuade people from getting abortions.
Fourteen states, including Florida, fund centers like these that are designed to push “alternatives to abortion.”
Along with expanding the funding for the network, the bill also expands eligibility for services to recent parents, including adoptive parents, and widens the scope of duties to include providing parenting classes and materials like diapers and car seats.
What comes next?
Whether the measure goes into effect hinges on the outcome of a challenge in the Florida Supreme Court to the state’s current ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Abortion providers challenging the 15-week ban, which went into effect last year, say the legislation is a violation of the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of a right to privacy. The state’s highest court has previously ruled that the clause protects access to abortion.
DeSantis’ administration is challenging that idea, saying that the privacy clause should be reviewed and that it does not relate to abortion.
If the state court deems the right to privacy does not relate to abortion, or if it allows the 15-week law to stand, the six-week law will take effect 30 days after that deciding point.
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