The South Is Being Squeezed Dry When It Comes to Abortion Access

North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida are only remaining states in the region where there is any kind of access—and even that is under threat.

The South Is Being Squeezed Dry When It Comes to Abortion Access
Photo:CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP (Getty Images)

The Southern states are in crisis.

On Wednesday, North Carolina state Rep. Keith Kidwell introduced a total abortion ban with one mealy-mouthed exception into the state’s House. It’s a draconian, three-page bill that posits that life begins at fertilization. It’s also part of a growing trend of state lawmakers squeezing the last little bits of abortion access out of the South.

Looking at a map of abortion access in America is always, at best, a sigh-inducing endeavor. Since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, the number of abortion clinics has dwindled. Some clinics have left the states where they’d operated for years, with the goal of being able to continue to provide care elsewhere. Nowhere is this more evident than the South.

Let’s consider each state in the region, from west to east:

  • Missouri: No abortion access.
  • Texas: A mess that amounts to no abortion access.
  • Oklahoma: No abortion access.
  • Arkansas: Before Roe v. Wade fell, it passed a trigger ban to make abortion immediately illegal in the state if Roe was ever overturned.
  • Louisiana: Another trigger ban.
  • Mississippi: No abortion access.
  • Alabama: None.
  • Georgia: Only before 6 weeks.
  • Tennessee: No abortion access.
  • Kentucky: A trigger ban is being challenged in court but is still in effect.

South Carolina, Florida, and North Carolina are three bright spots in this region—and they’re all facing bills that seek to either outright ban abortion or severely curtail when during a pregnancy it is available.

Though state officials had sought to limit abortion access for years, the overturning of Roe prompted legislators like Kidwell to put forward even more drastic restrictions and to move even faster. He calls his bill the “Human Life Protection Act of 2023,” and it seeks to make law the idea that pregnancy begins when “a male human sperm penetrates…the female human ovum.”

Kidwell’s legislation would make performing an abortion a felony and a civil violation that could result in at least $100,000 fine (and attorneys’ fees) and the loss of professional licenses. It would go into effect on July 1, but its passage isn’t yet guaranteed. Though North Carolina has a Democratic governor, both state houses are controlled by Republicans and, in the General Assembly, the GOP is just one vote shy of veto-proof majority.

In Florida, the state Senate is fast-tracking a bill that would ban abortion at six weeks from the last menstrual period (LMP). (Measuring via LMP, while typical, usually overestimates a pregnancy’s progress by about two weeks. So even if you’re eight weeks LMP, you might have only conceived six weeks ago— but you’re still not eligible for abortion care under this scenario.) Gov. Ron DeSantis (R, duh) has said he’s open to signing a six-week abortion ban. Right now, that means even though abortion in Florida is limited at 15 weeks LMP, it is still relatively accessible compared to other states in the region. The six-week ban would drastically change that.

South Carolina’s battle is a bit more complicated. In January, the state Supreme Court found that a six-week ban on the books violated the state constitution. A lot was made out of the nearly two dozen lawmakers who initially supported a bill that would make abortion a crime punishable by the death penalty, but that bill never made it to a vote. It’s now a waiting game for the legislature’s next move.

If North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida are no longer able to provide abortion care, in the contiguous U.S., the next closest clinics are in Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, and Virginia. If you are a patient in Florida seeking care, a better bet might be flying to Puerto Rico.

Instead of giving people the options to choose what is best in their life, lawmakers like Kidwell want to redefine abortion. In his three-page legislation, it’s no longer an abortion if the abortion will “save the life or preserve the health of an unborn child”; will “remove a dead unborn child who death was caused by spontaneous abortion”; or “remove an ectopic pregnancy.” These lawmakers are seeking greater control over reproduction by rewriting biology. An abortion is an abortion, whether it would limit the danger of an ectopic pregnancy, or whether it is merely what a pregnant person wants.

Members of Congress introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act on Wednesday and Thursday (in the Senate and House, respectively) to start the long process of creating a federal right to abortion. While longer-term measures are important, these kind of protections will not re-open shuttered abortion clinics or rehire care workers. People’s lives are already upended because their bodily autonomy is being taken away; millions more are at risk of the same thing.

Abortion access in the South is in a vice grip, and I’m not sure how many times I can shout that people need to care. Abortion bans do not just affect abortion, even though that is the immediate affect. Abortion bans drive out doctors from practicing in the states. Abortion bans allow lawmakers to encroach on other forms of healthcare. It never stops with just attacking so-called women’s issues. The saying is “as California goes, so goes the country,” but when it comes to abortion, the South is our bellwether. There are already so many warning signs; just scroll back up to this story’s initial list. Do not ignore the latest attempts to snuff out abortion in the South.

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