On Friday morning, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in a case with enormous implications for women not only in the state of Florida, but across the entire South.
Justices considered whether the state’s current law, which prohibits abortions after 15 weeks, violates Florida’s constitution — specifically the right to privacy it guarantees. Every Floridian, it says, “has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion in the person’s private life.”
This was not the first time the Florida Supreme Court has considered such a question: In 2017, justices blocked a 24-hour mandatory waiting period for abortions on the grounds that it violated the state’s privacy protections.
But that was before Governor Ron DeSantis replaced the three most liberal members of the bench with like-minded Republicans. Today, five of seven justices are DeSantis appointees, and the court is considered one of the most conservative anywhere in the country.
In court on Friday, Florida’s solicitor general, Henry Whitaker, argued that the protection applies solely to “informational privacy” — and at least some of the justices seemed persuaded.
If the ultra-conservative majority upholds the 15-week ban — as many observers expect it to — a 6-week ban, signed into law earlier this year but prevented from going into effect by the pending lawsuit, will become law 30 days after the ruling. The impact could be cataclysmic.
Florida is the third-most populous state in the nation, surrounded by states that have severely restricted abortion. Despite the imposition of the 15-week ban last fall, the number of abortions performed in Florida increased in the first six months of this year compared to 2020, according to a survey by the Guttmacher Institute, whose experts attribute the increase to the even more onerous bans passed by neighboring states.
If the 6-week ban goes into effect, the closest states for women seeking abortion care will be North Carolina (which just passed a 12-week ban) and Virginia (where Gov. Glenn Youngkin has promised he will “happily and gleefully” ban abortion if Republicans win a majority in the state legislature this November).
“North Carolina and Virginia in total can see less than 65,000 patients, so there is nowhere accessible for these folks to go when they’re going to be denied access to care. Tens of thousands of people will not be able to receive care,” says Lauren Brenzel, campaign director for Floridians Protecting Freedom, the organization behind an effort to codify the right to abortion in the state. “The next closest major access states are Illinois and New York. We’re sitting on the precipice of the largest public health crisis that’s been created since the overturn of Roe v. Wade.”
The difference between a 15-week ban, like the one currently in effect in Florida, and a 6-week ban, like the one poised to go into effect, is massive. “Most people access abortion before 15 weeks, not only in Florida, but in general,” Brenzel says. The vast majority of those patients seeking abortion care in the later term do so because of health complications, like Deborah Dorbert, a Floridian who was forced to give birth earlier this year to a son, knowing his kidneys had failed to develop and he would not survive outside of her womb.
“We’ve seen absolutely grievous stories of women who have been harmed by this 15-week ban,” Brenzel says, but the scale of the problem will be much, much worse if the 6-week ban is allowed to go into effect. Many women don’t know they are pregnant at six weeks, and those that do will have to fight for a limited number of appointments and secure at least two of them to comply with the state’s mandatory waiting period.
“That basically makes abortion inaccessible in the state of Florida,” Brenzel says.
That’s why she and other advocates in Florida began mobilizing more than a year ago around an effort to codify the right to abortion in Florida. In order to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Florida, advocates will need to collect signatures from at least eight percent of the number of Floridians who cast votes in the last presidential election.
On Friday, September 1, the organization passed an important milestone: the state officially verified 297,000 petitions — approximately one-third of the number needed to make the 2024 ballot and enough that they will qualify for Supreme Court review, a key hurdle in the process.
From Brenzel’s perspective, support for their efforts will only grow if the Supreme Court upholds Florida’s abortion ban, and the new, more severe restrictions automatically snap into place.
“Everyday people don’t think of this as a political issue in the same way that extremists politicians do,” Brenzel says. “The reality is that people go to their doctors as patients, they don’t pull out their voter registration card; they’re not saying whether they’re Republican or Democrat or Independent. These are private medical decisions,and Floridians understand that and are aware of the severe consequences of politicians interfering.”