Florida’s Six-Week Abortion Ban Is Now Law, With Political Implications

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As Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida prepared to run for president last spring, he gathered anti-abortion activists in his Capitol office for an unusual bill signing, held late at night and behind closed doors.

Florida lawmakers had just approved a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a major policy shift that would sharply restrict access to the procedure for women in neighboring states as well as for Floridians. That law took effect on Wednesday.

For Mr. DeSantis, the move seemed like something that would play well among some Republican presidential primary voters in states like Iowa. But this was Florida, and public opinion polls suggested broad opposition to such a strict law.

So Mr. DeSantis, who typically crisscrosses the state to sign bills, enacted the six-week ban in April 2023 with little fanfare, part of a headlong push into cultural conservatism meant to bolster his national campaign.

Mr. DeSantis dropped out of the presidential race in January. His culture wars appear to have peaked, at least for now. Voters in a string of states, including more traditionally Republican ones, have chosen to protect or expand abortion rights. A similar ballot measure will go before Florida voters in November, with the potential to significantly influence contests down the ballot.

Perhaps the biggest political question in Florida, though, is just how much abortion might swing the election. Is it unique enough to turn around a state that has trended reliably Republican?

The proposed constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, would allow abortions “before viability,” or up to about 24 weeks, and would need more than 60 percent support to pass. That threshold is high, especially in the face of an organized opposition campaign characterizing the language as too far-reaching.

“The average Floridian, when they hear the truth about this extreme amendment, they will vote it down,” State Representative Jenna Persons-Mulicka, a Fort Myers Republican, said last month.

But some Floridians, including some Republicans, have wondered whether a relentless pursuit of divisive policies ahead of Mr. DeSantis’s presidential run might now be forcing a bit of recalibration to be more in line with the state’s diverse electorate.

The governor and Republican lawmakers pursued fewer culture war fights during this year’s legislative session. They made it harder for residents to file book challenges in schools. The state also settled a lawsuit filed by opponents of a law prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity through the eighth grade.

“We’re very much Middle America,” said the Rev. Sarah Robinson, pastor of the Audubon Park Covenant Church in Orlando, who attended a “Yes on 4” rally last month. “Middle-class people who are trying to raise families and care for their communities. And there are definitely things that they’d rather be doing than fighting these policies.”

National Democrats have expressed optimism that the abortion ballot measure could put Florida in play, despite no clear commitment of how much money the party is willing to spend in the state and a substantial Democratic disadvantage in voter registrations. President Biden briefly spoke about the six-week ban in Tampa last week, and Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Jacksonville to draw attention to the state ban on Wednesday.

Asked on Tuesday about Democrats’ hopeful claims, Mr. DeSantis offered a dismissive “Pfft” and laughed.

“I welcome Biden-Harris to spend a lot of money in Florida. Light up the airwaves,” he said, indicating that the funds would be poorly spent. “We are fine with you doing that here, but I can confidently predict that you will see Republican victories, not just at the top of the ticket but up and down the ballot.”

“This was done to help Ron DeSantis in his ambitious plan to run for president,” State Senator Lauren Book, the Democratic minority leader, said of the ban. “It didn’t work, and it has really created dire, dangerous consequences for women.”

Florida is full of transplants from the Northeast and Midwest, and their cultural politics have skewed more liberal — or at least more libertarian — than those in other parts of the Deep South. Floridians have elected Republicans while also approving liberal ballot proposals, including ones that raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, restored felons’ voting rights and legalized medical marijuana.

Before Mr. DeSantis enacted a 15-week abortion ban in April 2022, Florida allowed abortions up to 24 weeks.

John Stemberger, the president of Liberty Counsel Action, an anti-abortion lobbying group, said that Florida’s 24-week law had less to do with public opinion and more to do with legal precedent set by the Florida Supreme Court in 1989. The court ruled then that a privacy clause in the State Constitution extended to abortion rights.

“It didn’t really reflect the demographics of Florida,” Mr. Stemberger said of the old ruling. “It reflected the opinion of seven justices who made a policy-oriented decision.”

The court, now conservative and nearly entirely appointed by Mr. DeSantis, reversed that position on April 1. Mr. Stemberger credited Mr. DeSantis for stocking his administration with “solid social conservatives” willing to push abortion restrictions: “Personnel is policy.”

Even with the 15-week ban in place, there was an uptick in abortions in Florida last year, in part because women from other Southern states with stricter laws had traveled to Florida for the procedure.

Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, executive director of the Florida Access Network, a fund that helps women in Florida pay for abortions, said that requests for support doubled in April, as the countdown to the six-week ban was underway. The organization increased its budget by 25 percent for the month but still had to turn away some patients.

“The reality is that people are going to continue to need abortion access,” she said, “regardless of the election cycle.”



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