Republicans look to end Florida’s abortion-haven legacy

Republicans look to end Florida’s abortion-haven legacy

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Thousands of people have traveled to Florida from as far away as Texas to end their pregnancies since the Supreme Court dismantled Roe v. Wade in June — and Republicans want to put a stop to it.

Florida Republicans, who hold supermajorities in the Legislature, proposed a ban last week on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — or two weeks after someone misses their period — and with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ support, passage is almost guaranteed.

Abortion providers and Democrats are reeling over the proposed ban and what it means for people in Florida and those who travel to the Sunshine State specifically to get abortions. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, roughly 4,000 people traveled to Florida for the procedure, including from Texas and Alabama, where abortion is outlawed at any stage of pregnancy with some narrow exceptions when a patient’s life is in danger.

“We’re talking about thousands of people whose care will be delayed or new travel plans have to be made,” Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who previously worked at Planned Parenthood, said. “It shows this is truly a bill to be cruel just to be cruel.”

Florida last year banned people from getting abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. But that law is still much less restrictive than other states across the South.

Florida’s proposal signals that the battle over reproductive rights will continue long after the high court’s decision and will be a major factor in the 2024 election cycle , especially as DeSantis eyes a likely presidential bid. DeSantis’ support for the bill shows he’s eager to continue courting the right wing of the GOP, regardless of how further restricting abortion will be received during a general election.

But Florida’s legislation also highlights how a network of providers in the state, who created an infrastructure to help patients from Georgia, Mississippi and elsewhere get abortions in the state, will need to change tactics if the six-week ban is approved.

Monthly reports obtained from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration show that 6,708 people came from outside the state to get an abortion last year, a more than 37 percent increase compared to 2021. The sharpest increase in visitors began after the Supreme Court ruling was handed down. There were 3,917 out-of-state abortions last year between June 1 and Dec. 31, a more than 140-percent increase compared to the same time period in 2021.

More than 82,000 people total received abortions in 2022.

Clara Trullenque, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida, said caseloads at clinics along the state’s northern border quadrupled after the high court ruling.

“Our health centers in Tallahassee and Jacksonville receive more patients from other states where abortion access is even more restricted than it is in Florida,” Trullenque said in an email. “We are continuing to hire additional staff, extend hours and make every accommodation we can to ensure we can serve all of our patients.”

Amber Gavin, a vice president for A Woman’s Choice, an abortion clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., said a patchwork of national funding organizations, regional abortion support groups and local clinics emerged to help manage the skyrocketing number of patients.

“We’re working really closely with local and national abortion funds to make sure people who reach out to us can get care they need and that we get the care we need,” Gavin said. “There’s specialized funding to make sure they are able to get the funds to get their care.”

A Woman’s Choice’s clinic also provides information to patients from outside Florida who are looking to the Sunshine State for help. Its website states: “Need Help? We help with feeds, travel, and more. We provide abortion care from everywhere. In fact, your abortion could be fully covered if your State has banned or Severely Restricted Abortion Care, including: AL, AK, GA, KY, LA, MS, MO, OK, TN, and WV.”

Another complication is Florida’s 24-hour wait period law. A state circuit court ruling threw out a lawsuit challenging a requirement that people wait a day between an initial clinic visit and receiving an abortion. Gavin said that rule requires most out-of-state patients to make a two-day trip to Florida, and the subsequent costs of airfare, lodging, and child care quickly pile up.

“It’s already a barrier to have to come here,” Gavin said. “We’re talking about folks who are having to take off one to two days at work, the cost of travel and lodging.”

Data provided by AHCA, the state health agency, shows that most people who came to the state for an abortion over the past few years hailed from Alabama and Georgia but the number of clinics in North Florida has since dropped. In May of last year, AHCA shut down the only clinic in Pensacola after at least three patients suffered complications that were investigated for malpractice. With the Pensacola clinic closed, people were forced to seek access in already overwhelmed offices in Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

“They’ve just been coming from all over,” Gavin said.

The June Supreme Court ruling that led to the explosion of out-of-state visitors prompted regional support and logistics organizations, such as the Atlanta-based ARC Southeast, to reallocate the dollars it receives from much larger abortion fundraising groups to switch from covering doctor’s bills to paying for travel and lodging.

ARC Southeast Healthline Manager Elsie Vazquez said before the Roe ruling, only a small fraction of the money her group received went to those logistical costs. Now, at least half of that money goes toward those ancillary costs, which she called “practical support.”

“Due to the bans in many of the [southeast] states, hundreds of folks are having to travel long distances to get care,” Vazquez said. “And it’s one of the biggest barriers they face apart from paying for their abortion.”

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