After nearly a year with a 15-week abortion ban in place, Florida appears poised to restrict it even further. In similar bills introduced in the two houses of the state Legislature last week, Republicans proposed banning nearly all abortions performed after six weeks of pregnancy. The GOP supermajorities that control the Florida House and Senate are expected to pass the bills easily, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he will sign the ban into law.
The difference between a 15-week abortion ban and a six-week abortion ban is vast: The window in between these two gestational ages is when the majority of abortions take place. According to the CDC, in 2019, about one-third of U.S. abortions were performed at or before six weeks’ gestation, while only 7 percent occurred after 13 weeks’ gestation.
Other states that have passed similar abortion bans provide a preview of what the Florida law will do. In Texas, after a ban that prohibited abortions following the onset of fetal cardiac activity (essentially, a six-week ban) took effect in 2021, staff members at a Houston abortion clinic told me that patients did not have six weeks to get an abortion, as the “six-week ban” language implied. Before they could provide an abortion, they said, they needed to see a pregnancy on a uterine ultrasound to confirm that it was not a potentially life-threatening ectopic pregnancy. It takes about five weeks after the first day of the patient’s last period for the first glimmer of a pregnancy to appear on an ultrasound—meaning that, in a state with a six-week abortion ban, a patient has about a weeklong opening in which to legally terminate a pregnancy.
Perhaps some legislators in favor of the proposed ban know this. It is likely that, for a good number of them, the dwindling likelihood that a Florida woman would be able to identify and terminate an unplanned pregnancy before her legal window slams shut is the entire point of the bill, because it will make her more likely to give up and give birth.
But surely, many of the ban’s supporters do not know—or particularly care—when the initial gestational sac of a pregnancy becomes visible on an ultrasound, or that “six weeks” pregnant typically means just four weeks after conception. They may not be aware that “six weeks” pregnant is only two weeks after the first indication of a missed period—in a person with a perfectly regular menstrual cycle.
These are medical details that pertain to pregnancy as a biological condition—a thing that happens to the body, explicable by science and the provenance of doctors—that is intimately entwined with health, pain, and injury. For all its clamoring about “heartbeats” and “fetal pain,” the anti-abortion right has no interest in the biological particulars of pregnancy.
Anti-abortion advocates draw on images of round-cheeked infants, rather than clots of tissue, to depict an embryo or fetus in propaganda materials. They say an embryo at six weeks’ gestation looks like “a miniature human infant,” when it really looks like this. At crisis pregnancy centers, they lie about the results of ultrasounds given to patients who are considering abortion. They suggest adoption as a simple alternative, as if undergoing several months of pregnancy and the act of childbirth were a negligible physical undertaking, as if several hundred people did not die of pregnancy and childbirth in the U.S. each year.
When faced with stories of patients suffering through days of a worsening infection or passing out from blood loss because hospitals in states that ban abortion are refusing to treat miscarriages in process, they shrug and blame the doctors who followed the law.
It is this studied ignorance of the basics of reproduction—and proud disregard for women’s pain—that has been the most consistent posture among those who would restrict reproductive health care this way, uniting right-wing extremists across gender, geography, and generation. It does not suit their interests to view pregnancy as anything other than a magical, mysterious, religiously significant period in which a woman’s body is given over to the needs of her fetus and the desires of the broader society in which she once took part. Their ideology rests on the treatment of pregnancy and childbirth as conceptual topics, easily debatable and containable, such that a legislator who has never taken so much as a sex ed class can write a physician’s dos-and-don’ts list into the penal code.
Early last year, when Florida lawmakers were considering the 15-week ban—and later, when DeSantis signed it into law in April, and when it took effect in July after the overturning of Roe v. Wade—conservatives presented it as a sensible compromise. One member of the Florida House, who herself benefited from access to legal abortion when she terminated a pregnancy some years ago, called it “generous”; DeSantis called it “very reasonable.” When the Florida Legislature was considering the 15-week ban last February, its sponsor, state Sen. Kelli Stargel, emphasized at the time that legislators were “not banning anything. We’re not being mean. We’re not taking away a woman’s opportunity.” (She later proposed that the high cost of private adoption was a consequence of “supply and demand,” and that banning abortion would help lower prices for adoptive parents.)
Some centrist commentators and mainstream news outlets were sympathetic to this framing. Because most anti-abortion activists were not satisfied with Florida’s 15-week ban—they were determined to hold out for a law that would make every abortion illegal—it seemed to New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore, for one, that 15 weeks could mark a meeting in the middle between left and right. Kilgore predicted that “pragmatic (or cynical) Republican politicians” would be “inclined to begin the post-Roe political struggle with the less onerous ban.” Other journalists suggested that DeSantis—and perhaps similar state officials with larger ambitions in states like Florida that have high rates of public support for legal abortion—might be wary of going too far, too fast on abortion restrictions, lest voters be turned off by their extremism.
But on the anti-abortion right, which has a stranglehold on the GOP, there are no moderate positions on abortion. Once you’ve staked your political future on the claim that abortion is literally murder, there is no arguing for lenience. (It’s also worth noting that any forcible withholding of pregnancy-related health care, no matter the point in gestation, is an extreme position that does not lend itself to compromise.)
Meanwhile, through the Electoral College, our system of government overweights votes from places with weaker support for abortion rights. American voters have had no problem electing anti-abortion presidents before. If DeSantis wins the 2024 GOP presidential primary, it won’t be his track record on abortion that keeps him from taking the White House. Though a majority of people in almost every state support legal abortion, most are not single-issue voters. A not-insignificant number of them are actually Republicans, more than one-third of whom believe abortion should be legal in all more most cases.
In other words, there is nothing currently stopping Republican officials in states where the GOP is in power from enacting the most radical version of their stated agenda: not the courts, not their future political prospects, not voters, not humility in the face of the human body’s complexity, not empathy for the people bound by their laws. Even the direct democracy option is drifting out of reach. Voters have favored abortion rights in every direct ballot initiative that has come up for a vote since Roe was overturned, but Republicans in several states—including Florida—are working to make it harder for residents to get propositions on the ballot.
Republicans have little to gain and a lot to lose (like a GOP primary) from moderating their positions on abortion. That’s why almost every state that has restricted legal abortion since the end of Roe has gone with a full ban, despite the fact that the majority of people in those states disapprove of such bans.
Stargel, the senator who sponsored the “not being mean” 15-week ban in 2022, said at the time that she wanted to propose a stricter ban, but she “knew we could never get that bill passed” because the Florida public was “not there yet.” Less than one year later, with a six-week ban around the corner, it is clear that what was restraining the Florida GOP in 2022 had nothing to do with what the Florida public did or did not want, because nothing in that realm has changed significantly since then. The only two things that distinguish this moment from that one are the absence of a constitutional protection for legal abortion—and the political will to disregard the majority of voters who support it.