Ron DeSantis’s six-week abortion ban brings risks to women

NO DOUBT hoping that most reporters had gone to bed, at 10.45pm on April 13th Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, signed into law a bill to ban virtually all abortions in the state after six weeks of pregnancy. The understated, closed-door ceremony suggests that Mr DeSantis knows how controversial this will be—and that he has taken a gamble with his own chances to become America’s next president.

Even to qualify for the limited exceptions to the ban, in cases of rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger, women will need to provide documentary proof. Abortions prescribed via telemedicine will become completely illegal, making Florida’s new law even stricter than Georgia’s, currently the only other state with a six-week ban. Whether the law goes into effect depends upon an upcoming decision by Florida’s supreme court about the legality of the state’s current 15-week ban. But as Mr DeSantis has stacked the court with conservative judges, they are unlikely to stand in his way.

The law would mark a stunning shift for what was until recently considered a swing state—and for a governor who was deemed relatively moderate for a Republican on the issue of abortion. Mr DeSantis has been an effective culture warrior by picking fights that thrill his base but are either parochial or have relatively little effect in the real world: signing into law the “Don’t Say Gay” act prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in schools, for instance, and attacking Disney for its wokeness. His approach to abortion is a departure from that. Within less than a year Florida will have gone from allowing abortions up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy, to 15 weeks (last July), to six. Although the step taken last summer may well have made political sense, this latest one will be far less popular.

The impact of the ban will be felt well beyond Florida, which accounts for nearly 10% of abortions in America. Since the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion last summer in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, women facing new bans in southern states have travelled to Florida. It has seen a greater increase in the procedure than any other state. While nationwide abortions fell by 6.5% in the six months after the ruling, or 5,377 per month, in Florida they increased by 19.5%, or 1,198 per month, according to a study released by the Society of Family Planning, a nonprofit that supports abortion access, earlier this week.

The worry is that both Floridians needing abortions beyond six weeks, a point at which many may not know they are pregnant, together with women outside Florida, will increase the pressure on the next-nearest states. Given the increased distances (and time and expense) required to travel to them, some women will probably feel they have no choice but to carry to term. Others are likely to turn to illegal or unsafe abortion methods. “It’s devastating because Florida is so critical to abortion access. It’s where people from Alabama, Georgia [or] South Carolina, go as a last stop for this essential health service,” laments Ushma Upadhyay, an abortion researcher and one of the authors of the study.

Mr DeSantis’s decision appears to be driven by his widely expected run for the presidency in 2024. The quirks of America’s electoral system mean he will first need to win over the more radical parts of his party, through the primaries, to be selected as the Republican candidate.

But if he makes it to the general election, he will need to temper his position. Moderate Republicans believe the issue can only hurt the party’s chances in 2024. (His main Republican rival, Donald Trump, having sometimes espoused extreme views on abortion, now seems to be tacking closer to the centre.) Only 21% of Americans believe the procedure should be illegal after six weeks of pregnancy, according to Pew Research Centre, a pollster, compared with 44% who believe it should be legal (19% say “it depends”). A recent poll by the University of North Florida suggested that even among the state’s Republican voters only a third support a six-week ban (though the question did not allow for exceptions in cases of rape or incest). Across the country, Republican support for complete bans has halved, from 23% in 2020 to 11% in 2022; the biggest decline has come since the Dobbs decision.

Mr DeSantis knows this. So his calculation may be that by showing the party’s religious bloc that he is a truer conservative than Mr Trump, he can secure the Republican nomination. He is gambling that he can adjust course later, and that moderate Republicans will not care about abortion enough to withhold their votes. His supporters point to his resounding victory at the midterms last November, when voters showed no sign of being put off by the 15-week ban. Indeed, historically only Americans with the strongest views on abortion have cast their vote based on the issue. As more extreme laws are implemented, that may well change.