Florida’s abortion ban shows the hypocrisy of ‘Right to Life’

by Mary Ellen Klas

Florida abortion providers began turning patients away from their clinics this week, even before the state’s six-week ban took effect Wednesday.

The state’s mandatory 24-hour waiting period, combined with the ban, effectively ended 50 years of reproductive freedom in Florida, where more than 84,000 abortions were performed last year. Thousands of those procedures were for women from states for whom Florida represented their closest access to reproductive health care. The Sunshine State now joins Texas as one of the two most populous states in the nation to have near-absolute bans, and it represents the largest loss of access to abortion care since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022.

Florida has a global reputation as a haven for retirees, the home to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, and as a tourism magnet with sandy beaches and palm tree-studded metropolises. But it is also a state of great disparities —economic, social and health — because the Republican establishment has no interest in addressing the gaps. The loss of access to abortion care will worsen the inequities. But then, to anti-abortion legislators, the ban isn’t about life, it’s about politics.

Most women don’t know they’re pregnant at six weeks, so fewer than 10% of Florida patients are likely to be eligible for an abortion under the new law, said Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida Planned Parenthood. While that percentage could change with better outreach and access, Goodhue predicts that half of all patients seeking abortions will be forced to carry their pregnancy to term or travel out of state for care. But accessing support networks to leave Florida is expensive and likely out of reach for thousands of people who have neither the resources nor the time to navigate the process.

And, based on what has happened in Texas, the impact of the ban will extend far beyond those with unwanted or medically dangerous pregnancies. Those who have health complications and require a medically necessary abortion after six weeks will also be denied care, warned Lauren Brenzel, director of Floridians for Protecting Freedom.

Florida’s previous 15-week ban was already restrictive, allowing no exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the health of the woman. Horror stories abound. A Miramar woman lost half her blood in a hair salon bathroom after she was turned away by an emergency room doctor who refused to deliver her premature fetus despite diagnosing her with a ruptured membrane. A Lakeland woman was told she would have to carry her pregnancy to term even though the fetus had no kidneys or lungs and wouldn’t survive. A 14-year-old rape victim was forced to carry her pregnancy to term because she was more than 15 weeks pregnant when she sought an abortion.

How does the GOP, which has spent decades pronouncing itself the “right to life” party, justify traumatizing women who are already going through one of the worst experiences of their lives? If Republicans really cared about protecting life, their response to the overturning of Roe would have been to expand the social safety net to make parenting easier, lower the economic barriers to raising healthy children, and diminish the economic and medical need for abortions.

Instead, they responded by criminalizing abortion, punishing victims, and passing laws to give women even less agency over their bodies.

Florida has compounded the problem by deciding that health care is not a right, but a luxury. Since January, the state has removed more than 22,500 children from Florida’s version of the Children’s Health Insurance Program — most because their families missed a payment.

The state has also refused to expand Medicaid, further shrinking the health care safety net for its neediest residents. Thirteen of Florida’s 63 counties are considered maternity care deserts, according to the March of Dimes.

There were 224,403 babies born in Florida in 2022, and nearly 98,000 of them — 44% — were born to women covered by Medicaid. Those are remarkable statistics when you consider how hard it is to qualify for Medicaid in Florida. A pregnant person must earn less than 196% of the federal poverty level — about $30,000 a year for an individual — to qualify.

If there are people in the right-to-life movement who truly believe that it’s the duty of society to care for the most vulnerable among us, then these policies should disappoint them as well. But we didn’t hear any outrage last year when the six-week ban was rushed through the Florida Legislature by the Republican supermajority so that Gov. Ron DeSantis could appeal to the party’s extremists in his failed quest to become president.

As with many policy decisions designed for political gain, the six-week ban will likely backfire. Outrage over it and the overturning of Roe fueled a citizens’ campaign to get an initiative onto the November ballot that, if approved, would enshrine reproductive rights in the state’s constitution.

Early polling indicates that the proposed amendment could get more than the 60% support needed to pass. Women across Florida are more motivated than ever to harness their collective power and regain control over their bodies. Until then, however, the damage is done.

Mary Ellen Klas is a politics and policy columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald, she has covered politics and government for more than three decades.