As Florida bans legal abortion, where will 84,000 women go?

(The Hill) -- The potential fallout from Florida's looming six-week abortion ban is likely to reverberate across the entire country, and abortion access groups are preparing for an imminent crisis. 

The state Supreme Court's ruling Monday to uphold the current 15-week ban and allow a six-week ban to take effect May 1 will effectively shut off abortion access in the South, where neighboring states already enforce near-total abortion bans or severe restrictions.  

There were 84,000 abortions performed in Florida last year, including thousands for women who needed to travel from out of state, according to state data.  

Come May 1, almost all of those women will need to find somewhere else to go. 

“The Southeast can’t absorb that number with the clinics that are available,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. 

Florida’s new law will be one of the most restrictive in the country and effectively amount to a complete ban. Six weeks gestation is before many women know they are pregnant, and the state will still require two in-person visits with the abortion provider 24 hours apart.  

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The state also bans doctors from prescribing abortion pills through telemedicine, requiring them to be dispensed in person by a physician. The new law includes exceptions for rape and incest but requires anyone claiming those exceptions to provide a copy of a police report, medical record or court order. 

Advocates warn the law will shutter clinics and force women to travel hundreds of miles across state lines — if they can afford it. Travel is a significant barrier for low-income women, who may wind up carrying their pregnancy to term regardless of complications. 

For people living in the southern part of the Sunshine State, the closest clinic where someone can get an abortion after six weeks is in Charlotte, N.C., an 11-hour drive from Miami.  

North Carolina bans abortion after 12 weeks and six days of gestation, while also requiring a 72-hour waiting period. For someone experiencing a pregnancy complication beyond 12 weeks, the closest states are likely Virginia or Illinois. 

“People who need abortions will not have them with this ban. I think that's just inevitable,” said McKenna Kelley, a board member with the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund. 

“We're cutting off the remaining place that people could go to access abortion in the Southeast. And I think that's going to have really negative consequences.”

Abortion fund organizations, which help people cover expenses for abortions, and providers like Planned Parenthood said they have been planning for the state to trigger a six-week ban for more than a year.  

But still, advocates said there just isn’t capacity elsewhere to handle the expected influx of people needing care.  

“People are absolutely going to be left behind,” said Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, executive director of the Florida Access Network. “The reality is, there's no amount of resources that could adequately fund the travel and support that people needing to leave their community for abortion care will need.” 

The end of Roe v. Wade made abortion care much more expensive, as the patchwork of state policies has forced people to travel further than before. Loraine Piñeiro said the current 15-week ban has stretched her fund so thin that it only serves Florida residents. 

Florida Access Network has helped fund abortions for women both inside and outside the state since 1996. But after the 15-week ban was imposed in 2022, just before Roe was overturned, the fund experienced a 235 percent increase in requests for support. 

“We were being bombarded with requests from people all over the South, and as an organization based in Florida, the decision was, like, we need to focus on our community in Florida,” Loraine Piñeiro said.  

Serra Sippel, interim executive director of The Brigid Alliance, a national abortion fund that prioritizes helping women who are at least 15 weeks pregnant, said they helped more than 195 women and girls from Florida travel out of state in 2023. The average cost to travel for care was roughly $3,000, and the average distance traveled per person was around 1,800 miles roundtrip, Sippel said. 

Democratic-led states that protect abortion have seen a surge in traffic since Roe fell, and advocates in Florida and elsewhere are predicting further strain on those resources. 

Megan Jeyifo, executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, said she is anticipating spending at least $100,000 more per month to be able to sustain the coming surge. 

“We have not turned anyone away in almost five years, but we are very close to having to scale down or turn people away based on this ruling,” Jeyifo said.  

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Jeyifo noted Illinois has loosened restrictions and expanded protections for patients and providers, but the challenge now is money. 

“We've created these conditions in our state for so-called health care refugees. But our biggest concern right now is that we will not have the funding to pay for them, and then it will only be people of means who have the ability to travel out of state, to access care, to actually get to care,” Jeyifo said. 

Advocates in Florida and across the country are hopeful that voters will turn out in November to pass a ballot measure legalizing abortion in the state up to the point of viability.  

But Floridians will be living with the six-week ban for seven months by the time the election occurs. Even if the measure passes, it wouldn’t take effect until January.  

Jeyifo said she’s frustrated to hear people talk about the politics of the ballot measure — which Democrats say may help mobilize voters — rather than about the people who are going to be most impacted by the strict abortion ban.  

“We're seeing glee from so many people, you know, 'we're going to have a ballot amendment, Florida's back in play now!’ And that's going to be on the backs of people for at least the next nine months that will not be able to access common essential lifesaving, life-affirming health care,” Jeyifo said. 

"What about the people who are going to be suffering throughout this process? You know, is anyone paying attention to them?” 

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