South Florida clinics seeing influx of women as Florida’s 15-week abortion ban looms

·8 min read

Danielle Tallafuss was almost 23 weeks pregnant when her baby was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a condition in which the left side of the heart is critically underdeveloped.

She along with her husband (and with their one-year-old son in mind) made the decision in July 2020 to terminate the pregnancy. A decision — though it was the hardest she had ever made — she says she would make again.

If the situation had occurred two years later, after this coming Friday, July 1, Tallafuss, who was 33 at the time, would not have been able to terminate her pregnancy at a clinic in Florida. A new law would have made it so that she would have had to carry the fetus to term and likely watch Nathaniel (the family had already named the child) die shortly after, as most babies with HLHS die within their first two weeks of life without heavy intervention.

Tallafuss said not being allowed to terminate would have been even more devastating. “You’re already faced with the most heartbreaking decision you’ll have to make in your life… add to that your own community has banned this for you when you know steadfastly that it is the right decision.”

The new state law (HB 5), which would go into effect Friday (barring an injunction), bans abortions after 15 weeks, replacing the previous law that allowed the procedure until 24 weeks in. The new statute does not make exceptions for cases of rape or incest, but does allow a pregnancy to be terminated to save the life of the mother or prevent serious injury.

(Update: On Thursday a judge in Leon County blocked the law, saying it violated the state’s constitution. The state is expected to appeal this decision.)

Most women who seek termination after 15 weeks don’t simply do it because they waited until then, said Maria, an office assistant at A Women’s Care, a clinic that performs abortions in the Golden Glades area.

Some women have irregular menstrual cycles, and just did not know they were pregnant until then. Others are minors who were too scared to tell their parents until later in their pregnancies. Some have come from nearby states where the laws are more restrictive and didn’t have the funds to travel earlier.

One woman the clinic served was seven weeks pregnant when she got arrested and spent 10 weeks in jail. Another had a tubal ligation, a surgical procedure to prevent pregnancy, but became pregnant anyway, only finding out after she was already 17 weeks along and the pregnancy was high risk. She chose to terminate.

Others, like Tallafuss, have a critical fetal diagnosis, which usually are diagnosed after 15 weeks.

Though Tallafuss said her family would have come up with the means to terminate the pregnancy in another state had the 15-week ban been in effect, for others traveling to another state would likely be too much of an economic burden.

Preparations

Alexa Lane, counselor and reproductive rights advocate at Palm Beach County’s Presidential Women’s Center, shared that in preparation for the ban, the center is referring women to out-of-state clinics and is passing along information about programs that can provide lodging and transportation to those in need of financial assistance.

“They’re already struggling so much with things like transportation, work and childcare,” said Lane. “The thought of leaving your family to go out of state and missing work is really not feasible for some people.”

Rody Carballo, the administrator at Gynecology and More Inc., said that since the majority of the women they see are usually at the eight- to 10-week stage of their pregnancy, they’re not too concerned. The same is true for A Hialeah Woman’s Care Center, where the operator says most women who come in to terminate a pregnancy are usually six to eight weeks along.

The operator of A Hialeah Woman’s Care Center says most of the women who come in for abortion services are under 15 weeks pregnant.
The operator of A Hialeah Woman’s Care Center says most of the women who come in for abortion services are under 15 weeks pregnant.

In 2021, only 6% of the abortions performed in Florida occurred in the second trimester, or between 12 and 24 weeks. The rest, 74,967 in total, were performed in the first trimester, according to data published by Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

However, Carballo shared that like the Presidential Women’s Center, all they can do for women who are 15 weeks or later into their pregnancy once the law goes into effect is point them to clinics in another state.

Even then, Lane and Carballo said they anticipate seeing an influx of women from outside of Florida given that neighboring southeastern states have implemented laws more restrictive than Florida’s. Lane shared that since Friday, her clinic has been getting more women from Louisiana due to a “trigger law” — one previously approved but that went into effect immediately upon the Supreme Court overturning Roe — that bans abortion at any stage of pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood is experiencing high demand for abortion access and also anticipates an increase in women seeking care in Florida. It is increasing appointments and hiring nine additional physicians to meet the need. One will be on staff on a regular basis, but several of them are coming off and on from states including Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Massachusetts. They agreed to travel to Florida a few times a month to lend a hand, said spokeswoman Christina Noce.

“We’re trying to fit in as many patients as we can to get them in before July 1,” said Mayte Canino, the Planned Parenthood’s deputy organizing director for Southeast and North Florida.

But it is not yet clear whether the 15-week ban might go into effect as it was intended to on Friday.

Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the anti-abortion Christian Family Coalition, said he’s confident the ruling will uphold the 15-week law, even if the decision is appealed and ultimately lands before the Florida Supreme Court. He also believes lawmakers will pursue greater restrictions on abortion after the 2022 midterm elections.

Historically, we’ve seen a window into what’s next and legislators will probably file the ‘heartbeat bill,’” said Verdugo, referring to legislation akin to the six-week ban that was passed in Texas last year. “It’s never gotten any traction in Tallahassee, but I think we could start there.”

‘It’s Going to Make People Become Even More Desperate’

Lane described the 15-week restriction coupled with the law that requires two visits to a clinic at least 24 hours apart as “a race against time” for those looking for an abortion in Florida. She said that, in the future, due to limited appointment times and high demand, someone who may approach the clinic originally at 13 weeks into their pregnancy could end up being ineligible by the time their actual procedure is scheduled.

She said the 24-hour waiting period went into effect earlier this year after pro-choice advocates lost a nearly seven-year court fight to stop it. The first appointment includes lab work and counseling, and the second is for the actual procedure. While the procedure can occur by law after the 24-hour period, actually terminating the pregnancy depends on availability at the clinic. For some clinics, the wait time can be around two weeks.

“All of these restrictions, they just delay care,” said Lane. “They put barriers in people’s way. People will always need abortions so this is not going to get rid of abortion, it’s just going to make people become even more desperate.”

Laura Goodhue, the executive director of the Florida Alliance Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said providers are most worried about the impact on populations that already face barriers to care.

“We do serve young people, kids, that need abortions,” Goodhue said. “People who are under the age of 18, if their parents don’t consent, have to go to a judge” — another hurdle that can run out the clock.

If the state law does go into effect, Lane, like other providers, is concerned that the added restrictions in Florida and throughout the country will disproportionately affect low-income women of color.

In 2019, around 60% abortions in Florida were performed on Black or Hispanic women, according to data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The same two groups represent about 40% of the state’s population.

“There’s a disparity in healthcare in general and this is magnified in the abortion sphere as well, but Black and brown people are disproportionately impacted by abortion bans,” Lane said.

Advocates have stressed that Florida continues to be a haven for women seeking abortions throughout the South, with states like North Carolina and Maryland being the closest alternatives. But there’s another barrier to accessing care that has gone relatively under the radar: abortion clinics are also still grappling with an industry-wide healthcare worker shortage that began near the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In COVID there was a real uptick,” said Goodhue. “Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature didn’t focus on fixing that. Instead, they passed a 15-week abortion ban.”

Goodhue said that during this past legislative session, advocates of abortion access tried to amend the bill five separate times, unsuccessfully.

Now, their focus has turned to what state lawmakers might do next going forward.

Few GOP lawmakers in Florida’s Republican-led Legislature have said publicly what type of restrictions they would support. Reacting to the Roe v. Wade ruling, Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week that his administration “will work to expand pro-life protections” and promote adoption, foster care and child welfare.

Verdugo, the anti-abortion advocate, said he believes state lawmakers could settle for restrictions for anywhere between 10 to 12 weeks. “I’ll be honest with you, we’ll support any pro-life legislation,” he added.

But some providers in South Florida fear that the state could move next to prohibit abortion pills misoprostol and mifepristone, which are the most common and widely-used during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Goodhue said he thinks whatever the Legislature does won’t happen until next year.