Providers are scrambling as Florida's abortion 'safe haven' for out-of-staters nears its end under the 15-week ban Gov. Ron DeSantis just signed into law
Floridahas long allowed abortionuntil 24 weeks into a pregnancy, making it a 'safe haven.'
- But a new law will ban abortions after 15 weeks starting July 1.
These days, Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro receives about 60 requests a week from people who need help getting an abortion. As the co-executive director of Florida Access Network, it's her job to make sure the organization's clients have money for gas, food, or a hotel room. She'll help people think of options for childcare and how to fundraise for the procedure. She will line up volunteer drivers.
"My role as a facilitator is to make sure people get the support and services they need free from stigma and with as much love and support as possible," Piñeiro told Insider from her home office in Orlando.
She estimates that 15% of the people she helps are from outside of Florida. They increasingly are coming from neighboring states where abortion clinics are rare and regulations are getting tighter, places where the
That's because, despite the state's recent red voting patterns, Florida has had some of the loosest regulations on abortion in the US. Patients travel there not just from nearby states but from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and South America.
"A few states such as Florida and Illinois have been safe havens in highly restrictive regions," said Debasri Ghosh, managing director at the National Network of Abortion Funds. "They have seen an influx of patients from out of state."
By this summer, however, a growing part of Piñeiro's job will include supporting people who need to leave Florida if they want an abortion after roughly the first trimester. On Thursday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks into a pregnancy. The law would take effect July 1 unless a court intervenes.
"Thousands of patients who usually get care closer to home will now be driven further away and out of state," said Samantha Deans, an obstetrician-gynecologist who provides abortions as associate medical director of
The new law comes as a relief to organizations that oppose abortion. They have long seethed at Florida's laws, which allowed abortions for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, close to the third trimester. Florida clinics provided 76,648 abortions in 2021, state data show.
"We never wanted Florida to be an abortion destination," Lynda Bell, president of Florida Right to Life, told Insider. "That's the last thing we want for Florida."
The GOP-controlled legislature became emboldened to crack down on abortion after DeSantis appointed conservative justices to the state Supreme Court. Republicans also expect the US Supreme Court will overturn or chip away at Roe by the summer. The 6-3 conservative majority is readying a ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson, a case that will determine the legality of a Mississippi law that, like Florida, bars abortion past 15 weeks gestation.
"There is so much positive evidence that our cause is winning," said Mallory Carroll, spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony List, a national organization that supports candidates who pledge to fight for tighter anti-abortion laws.
"There are a significant number of abortions happening post 15 weeks in Florida — more than 3,300 according to the most recent state health department data — so this will save lives," she said.
Mapping out travel routes
Organizations that provide abortions have already been mapping out travel routes. The further people have to travel, the more complicated and expensive abortion care becomes, said Ghosh from the National Network of Abortion Funds. The organization has become busier in the last decade, she said, as more states have imposed restrictions.
"Calls have skyrocketed starting with the pandemic and carrying over now to this wave of bans we are seeing move through legislatures," Ghosh said.
According to Deans from Planned Parenthood, North Carolina would be the next closest location for Floridians who are seeking abortions after 15 weeks into a pregnancy, but she expects state lawmakers will soon curb access there. That then leaves patients going further north to places such as Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and New York.
Planned Parenthood will work to increase access to abortion earlier in pregnancy by opening more appointment slots, hiring more doctors, and reducing wait times, Deans said.
"We are already so busy with the influx from other states," she said. "Our appointments can be four weeks away. That's inappropriate if we are staring down the barrel of a 15-week ban. We don't want to be a barrier to women not being able to access care."
Abortion rights supporters could also battle the Florida law legally or politically. State Sen. Annette Taddeo, who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to unseat DeSantis, told Insider that if elected she would challenge the 15-week ban in court given that Florida's constitution guarantees a "right to privacy."
With a GOP-controlled legislature, she would not be able to codify Roe into state law as governor. Therefore, Taddeo said, she wanted to be "realistic" about the promises she makes on abortion rights, so she recently asked experts to research how she could expand abortion access through executive actions.
"Florida has been the place to come where you could drive here and not be as restricted," Taddeo said. "Now we are joining many of these southern states."
Anti-abortion groups are gearing up for new law
Anti-abortion groups both nationally and locally say they're also strategizing for the new law. Last week, congressional Republicans began circulating talking points that argued communities are already supporting families by increasing funding for pregnancy care centers as well as access to childcare and paid family leave.
Neither childcare nor paid leave is universal in the US. Pregnancy Care Centers vary in what they offer, but are typically faith-based and work to dissuade patients from abortion while offering emotional and financial support, and sometimes also provide medical services. Florida's health department pays $4.5 million toward these organizations.
This week, on top of the 15-week ban, a circuit judge allowed a 24-hour waiting period to take effect in Florida.
Bell of Florida Right to Life said organizations like hers needed to push back on messages that tell women having a baby would ruin their education or careers, or increase their chances of living in poverty.
"If abortion was banned tomorrow our job gets much harder," Bell said. "We need to be there for education and to provide services for women."
She also noted the law, formally called the Fetal and Infant Mortality Act, includes provisions to reduce smoking during pregnancy and directs health agencies to propose ways for reducing fetal and infant mortality.
Republican state lawmakers tackled family legislation this session that went beyond abortion. This week DeSantis signed a bill into law to encourage fathers to be in their children's lives and fund mentorship programs for fatherless children. He also signed a bill into law that expands funding for foster care.
Most US voters support limits on late-pregnancy abortion
Abortion rights organizations won't have an easy job fighting a Florida-style law. DeSantis is widely considered to be a 2024 GOP candidate for president, and polling shows that single-issue voters on abortion are more likely to identify as "pro-life" than "pro-choice."
Polling also shows most voters support restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy. Permitting later abortions is out of step from what most other countries allow. But abortion rights organizations contend there should be no cutoffs. Patients who need late-pregnancy abortions have received a devastating medical diagnosis, are in vulnerable situations, or didn't know they were pregnant, Deans said.
Others may have wanted to have an abortion sooner but didn't because of restrictions in their states that forced them to take the time to save money to travel elsewhere. By the time they can get an abortion, they're further along in their pregnancies than they'd hoped to be, even past the 15-week mark, Deans said.
She added that voters who oppose late-pregnancy abortions don't have the full story.
"If they see what I see, if they spoke to the women I did, if they saw what their decisions are, they would feel very differently," Deans said, citing the story of an 11-year-old girl who came to her 23 weeks pregnant after being raped by a family member.
The new Florida law doesn't have exceptions for rape, incest, or human trafficking. Of 4,838 abortions performed in the second trimester in Florida, three were performed in cases of incest, and 14 were performed in cases of rape, state data from 2021 show. A total of 60% of Florida voters opposed the 15 week ban without these exemptions, polling from the University of North Florida showed.
The law provides exemptions if the pregnancy is life-threatening or would cause serious injury, or if the fetus has a fatal abnormality. But Deans said the law's language is too broad, and doctors won't want to risk going to prison if they have doubts about whether a condition is fatal.
"Asking that patient to make a time-limited decision is cruel," Deans said. "It can take weeks for a person to wrap their minds around what's going on and make a decision."
Anti-abortion advocates are against abortion even in such circumstances. Instead, they favor letting fetuses die naturally or having hospitals provide perinatal hospice, which alleviates a baby's pain after birth and allows families to spend time with the infant before death.
No comprehensive data exist on why abortions happen in the third trimester. When they do, they cost thousands of dollars and can take several days.
For Florida Access Network, trying to help a patient get an abortion early in pregnancy whenever possible helps to minimize costs and other logistical hurdles, Piñeiro said. The organization contributes about $250 per abortion, though people generally report that they need between $700 to $4,000, given that they may also need help with lost wages if they have to take time off work.
Piñeiro will not only help people get the funding they need through various organizations and fundraising tools but will tell them about how she got two abortions when she was a teenager, including after one pregnancy that was the result of sexual assault.
The organization has a staff of five based in Orlando and Jacksonville, as well as a network of volunteers all over the state. There are times when last-minute requests will come in and Piñeiro has to run off to drive clients to appointments.
"We wish we didn't have to exist," she said. "I wish we lived in a country that made sure to take care of their people, that made sure to provide healthcare at an affordable rate, and that abortion was included."
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