Florida’s Role in Providing Vital Abortion Access for the South Threatened by Six-Week Ban: ‘It’s Essentially Forced Pregnancy’

A woman talks to her doctor during an abortion consultation at a Planned Parenthood Abortion Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., on July 20, 2022. (Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images)

Late on Thursday, April 13, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) quietly signed into law a bill that would ban most abortions in the state after six weeks, before most women even know they are pregnant. The six-week ban will take effect only if the state’s current 15-week ban is upheld by the state supreme court, pending an ongoing legal challenge. (The court is controlled by conservatives.)

If the six-week ban is eventually allowed to take effect, abortion access will be dramatically restricted—not just in Florida but in the entire Southeastern U.S. Since Roe fell, Florida has been the most accessible destination for people in the Southeast to seek abortion care. In neighboring Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, abortions are completely banned. Georgia, which also borders Florida, also has a six-week abortion ban. And a few states away in Texas, doctors face criminal life sentences if they perform abortions.

Most abortions are now banned in 13 states, concentrated in the Southeast. (“After Roe Fell” / Center for Reproductive Rights)

Ms. spoke last week with Jamarah Amani, executive director of Southern Birth Justice Network and member of Black in Repro, a coalition of Black-led reproductive health groups and a part of Floridians for Reproductive Freedom. The organization advocates for equal and safe access to reproductive healthcare.

Amani broke down what to know about the extreme ban, and its impact on people in the South at large—especially Black and brown women.

Kemira Mulholland: How did the Black in Repro coalition come about?

Jamarah Amani: Black in Repro wanted to bring together a group of Black reproductive justice activists working in different parts of the state to try to identify a unified policy agenda and to have one voice, because many of us are working in very siloed ways, and we are also facing huge obstacles in our local areas. The idea of unifying—to be stronger like the fist, instead of individual fingers—is what my understanding of the intention of the group has been.

I’m a member of the coalition and I was invited to join last year. My organization, Southern Birth Justice Network, has done some statewide legislative and policy organizing.

The idea that someone can find out they’re pregnant, get in to see their provider and make a plan to terminate a pregnancy before six weeks, it’s almost impossible.

Jamarah Amani

Mulholland: The coalition is opposed to the Florida law that prohibits abortions after six weeks, which will take effect tomorrow. What have been the successes, obstacles, positives and negatives of this work?

Amani: It’s been an incredibly grueling year, I can’t even believe it’s already been a year. And ever since the Supreme Court leak in [Dobbs v. Jackson], and then the decision, it has just been nightmare after nightmare—particularly in Florida, because we not only have this battle over abortion, but we have a battle over whether our kids learn Black history.

I’m a mother of four. And it’s just appalling to me that my children will not be learning anything about themselves in school.

We also have these policies that are targeting transgender youth, and making it more difficult for them to just receive basic healthcare. I’m also the mother of a transgender son, who is 22 years old and currently fundraising for top surgery. So I know what it means not to have gender-affirming care that is covered by insurance.

We’re just battling so many things in our state, it’s almost just like the state of Florida hates me and my family, just to put it very bluntly. Almost every one of these bad bills that are coming out is targeting a member of my personal family that is going to be deeply impacted by these bills. So it hurts.

I think there is a sense of helplessness. The people who don’t want to see us exist—when I say “us,” I mean Black and brown and Indigenous and queer and trans and intersex people. Their resources and their long-term strategy have been so effective, that I feel like we just have to go back to the table and re-strategize and come up with our long-term strategy. It doesn’t feel like we’re going to win in the short term right now.

Mulholland: You touched a bit on the ramifications that this law will have for specifically Black and brown people and communities. Do you mind getting a bit more into that?

Amani: A part of my role in my community is as a licensed midwife. I have seen the effects up close, where I’ve had clients who do not want to be pregnant or they can’t safely be pregnant, either because of health or prior complications, the number of C-sections they’ve had or various other reasons.

Most of those people are coming to see me are before 15 weeks, so we can get them care in the first trimester. But almost every single one of them—I would say 99 percent of them—are more than six weeks pregnant. So the idea that someone can find out they’re pregnant, get in to see their provider and make a plan to terminate a pregnancy before six weeks, it’s almost impossible. We know that this is a near-total ban.

We know that the communities that this will impact very deeply, are communities that are marginalized and disenfranchised, in many ways—by economics, by immigration policies and by systemic racism. Additionally, there is a lack of trust and connection to the healthcare system that is experienced by people from disenfranchised groups.

Because of the poor infrastructure in our healthcare system, we don’t really have streamlined services, or one-stop shops where people can go and get the reproductive healthcare that they need in a matter of a couple of days. Usually it takes much longer than that. So this is going to impact people that already have challenges with navigating the healthcare system for various reasons.

It’s essentially forced pregnancy. I compare it to the period of enslavement in this country when enslaved Black women were forced to breed. You have situations where people are being raped or coerced, there’s incest, there’s statutory rape, lots and lots of pregnancies result from those types of situations. And if we’re forcing people to keep them, then what are we saying about ourselves as a society?

Then you have situations where those rapists can go and fight for custody, which we’re seeing happening, or they can even sue the mother for trying to get an abortion.

It is absolutely insane to encode misogyny into the law in such a deep way that it will leave the people that are impacted by it with almost no alternatives that are not harmful to themselves or others. And it’s a level of disregard of our human rights and our humanity.

Mulholland: What do you think the ramifications will be to other people in the South?

Amani: What we are seeing across the South is these sweeping abortion bans from state to state. North Carolina and South Carolina both have bills before them right now. And so when you look at the map, Georgia already has a total ban, Florida is passing the ban tomorrow, and then you have if North Carolina and South Carolina both pass their bans, you would have to go to Virginia, from Florida, to get an abortion. Because most of these bans are six-week bans or very early bans. So you would have to go all the way to Virginia, that’s not realistically drivable for most people. And so then you have an incredible amount of barriers across the entire South.

What we’re seeing in the South, particularly in the Southern states that have strict abortion bans, or near total abortion bans, the rates of maternal mortality are also really high. And those rates are expected to double and triple and quadruple as we see more people being forced to keep pregnancies. And that’s a really scary situation because the healthcare system as it is really is not equipped to handle the maternal health complications that we are currently seeing.

As a midwife, part of my criticism of the healthcare system is this over-medicalization and over-surgicalizing of birth. So in Miami Dade County where I live, for example, we have an almost 50 percent C-section rate. The World Health Organization recommends a 10 percent C-section rate for a healthy nation. Those complications from C-sections actually are a huge part of the cause of maternal morbidity and mortality. And so until we can fix this very broken maternal healthcare system, dumping more pregnancies into it is just going to be disastrous.

We already have maternal healthcare deserts across the South, where people live in rural areas, and there’s been so many hospital closures. And because of the historic racism and decimation of midwifery, we don’t have enough community healthcare providers to take care of people who are disenfranchised, because hospitals in their areas are closing.

What I have been saying as I speak with different people, is that we need to be really asking the questions: Who does this benefit? Who is making money? Because laws don’t really get passed without somebody making some money, especially ones like this that didn’t come from community advocacy, but come from corporate structures. Who’s benefiting from these laws, who is making the dollars? And when you look at the foster care system, the school system, the prison system, they all stand to benefit from tearing families apart that are overwhelmed with children that they cannot safely keep and did not want to conceive.That is the picture, the bleak picture of the South.

I do want to uplift the spirit of resilience that I see. Because I do see communities organizing around our rights and preserving our access to abortion, to good prenatal care too, as a way of protecting ourselves from these big systems that seek to destroy us.

One example is the organization that I work with, the Southern Birth Justice Network. We’ve been organizing abortion doulas because people are going to be looking for support. We’re trying to figure out how to get the information in people’s hands about herbs that you can take to terminate pregnancies, and about how to safely get yourself the care that you need.

Those are the things that we’re trying to figure out here on the ground. And the harder the repression is, the stronger the resistance and resilience is. Across the South, particularly Black women are organizing around our rights and how to come together to protect ourselves, our families, our communities, our sisters, our daughters. I have an 11- and 17-year-old daughter and I don’t know what the future is going to look like for them.

That spirit of resilience, I think, is always there. And the harder the repression is, the stronger the resistance and resilience is.

Mulholland: How can Ms. readers do to assist and push back against this law?

Amani: We need to be more aware of who we are voting for when it comes to judges. Most of the time we pay attention to the Supreme Court justices, which we don’t vote for directly. But there are lower level judges, some of whom we vote for, whom people are not necessarily attuned to who they are, but sometimes they are the ones that end up deciding on some of these cases as they are being litigated. So I think it is really important to vote and get other people to register, get out to vote, and really get educated about the legislative process, and all the candidates so that we elect people who are going to have our back at the end of the day.

I also think that donating to abortion funds and birth centers and local doula groups—people who are really on the grassroots level and fighting for communities with direct services—is really helpful. There are people who are coming together and making sure that everyday people have access to what they need, and that it doesn’t become a barrier when it comes to having unintended pregnancies. So I think supporting those types of groups that are helping people get access to contraception and early abortion is really helpful. I also think that pushing for proactive legislation is helpful.

For example, Ava’s Law is one that I feel we should really be strongly supporting and replicating across the country. Ava’s Law is named after baby Ava, who died in her mother’s arms in a Gainesville, Fla., jail after she was arrested. She was in labor at the time and called for help for hours, but nobody helped her, and she gave birth to that baby in the jail and the baby died. The law requires judges to provide pregnant women an opportunity to defer sentencing until after delivery, while allowing the judge to order probation-like terms of release.

Laws like this one, that are proactive, that give us more of our rights, that call these anti-abortion legislators to task when they say, “We care about pregnant people,” are really necessary. Okay, well, do you? Well, let’s fight for incarcerated pregnant people then.”

Pushing back in that way is also helpful to just reframe it, because always being reactionary is draining and really sucks the energy out of our movement. And too, it’s really not that successful right now. But I do feel like this is also a moment where we can get some positive, proactive legislation through.

A large contingency of Black in Repro is going up to Tallahassee on Monday. We will be up there to talk to legislators and to organize ourselves, to really look at our agenda of what bills we’re supporting and what we’re pushing for not just this session, which is going to end soon, but over the next year as well.

Up next:

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Kemira Mulholland is an editorial intern with Ms. and a senior at Smith College studying women and gender. She is interested in issues pertaining the development of the Global South and sociology.