Florida abortion ban prompts two Southern states to prep for an influx of patients

Florida abortion ban prompts two Southern states to prep for an influx of patients

After the Florida Supreme Court cleared the way for a state ban on abortions after six weeks, clinics in North Carolina and Virginia say they are gearing up for an influx of patients.

Once the law takes effect on May 1, Florida will no longer be a refuge for people seeking abortions across the South. The state currently allows abortions up to 15 weeks of pregnancy — a far less restrictive policy than those implemented in many nearby states, including Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

More than 9,300 people traveled to Florida from other states to get abortion care last year — more than double the number in 2020, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion access.

Around 84,000 abortions were performed in Florida in 2023, representing around 1 in 12 abortions nationwide.

Come May, the closest option for Floridians and some others in the South who seek abortions will be in North Carolina, which allows abortions up to 15 weeks but requires people to receive in-person counseling at least 72 hours in advance. The next-closest option is Virginia.

Abortion clinics in both states are preparing to accommodate more patients by adding staff or extending hours of operation. Providers have had time to get ready, since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s six-week ban in April 2023. Its implementation was on hold pending the state Supreme Court decision, which came on Monday.

The Bristol Women’s Health Center, which offers abortions in southwestern Virginia, expanded its hours a few months ago to accommodate people from Florida and other Southern states. It has also started offering services in the evenings and sometimes on weekends.

“It is already hard enough for somebody who’s driving 12 hours away,” said Karolina Ogorek, the center’s administrative director. “While their reproductive health choices are being taken away by their state, as an abortion provider and a clinic, we want to give them as many choices as possible to be able to access the care that they need.”

The center also plans to work with funding agencies such as The Pink House Fund in Mississippi to help cover travel and lodging costs for patients coming from far away. 

A Woman’s Choice, a network of clinics with a location in Jacksonville, Florida, opened a new clinic in Virginia last month in anticipation of Florida’s ban. That clinic is working to add doctors, according to Amber Gavin, the organization’s vice president of advocacy and operations.

But even so, she said, demand could be quite high.

“Florida was seeing a huge influx of patients from the Southeast, and I’m very concerned that the neighboring states aren’t going to be able to accommodate all the Floridians and folks in the Southeast,” Gavin said.

Jenny Black, president of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, similarly said that the organization’s North Carolina clinics are making more appointments available. But those clinics already have a two-week wait time for abortions. 

“Planned Parenthood health center staff in North Carolina are doing their level best to quickly expand capacity and increase appointment availability ahead of the near total ban in Florida taking effect, but it will not be enough to stem the tide of patients from across the South who have few options left,” Black said in a statement.

For many women, traveling to get an abortion isn’t an option because of a lack of resources or other circumstances.

Florida clinics anticipated the state’s new law so have already trained additional staff to perform ultrasounds and confirm pregnancies. They are trying to see as many patients as possible before the end of the month.

“We’re opening up more ultrasound appointments scheduled for the next 30 days to get people in,” said Michelle Quesada, vice president of communications and marketing for Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida.

Quesada cautioned that, starting in May, patients will need to show up before the six-week mark, since Florida law requires two in-person visits to a clinic, 24 hours apart, ahead of an abortion.

“You’d have to find out you’re pregnant in your fifth week of pregnancy, which is one week after a missed period for someone with a perfect 28-day cycle,” Quesada said.

“I can only imagine in 30 days the sheer volume of patients that are going to be confused, scared, feel like they have no other option when they learn that they’re beyond six weeks,” she added.

Florida’s law allows exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

“I would think that it’s OK to have an abortion if the mother’s life is in danger. This particular law, this six-week bill, does have that — so there wouldn’t be any reason to have to travel,” said Ingrid Duran, the state legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion organization.

Duran noted that Florida’s ban sets aside $25 million to expand the Florida Pregnancy Care Network, a group of centers that aim to convince women not to have abortions. Such centers offer pregnant women counseling and supplies like car seats and diapers, but some have been known to provide inaccurate or misleading information.

Duran said the funding may help address a lack of access to health care, counseling and support that she believes could be “some of the reasons why women choose to have abortions.”

The fate of abortion access in Florida isn’t set in stone, however: The state Supreme Court also decided that a proposed amendment to its constitution that would enshrine abortion protections can be on the November ballot.

What we’ve seen in other states is that when abortion is on the ballot, it wins,” Gavin said.

Aria Bendix

Aria Bendix is the breaking health reporter for NBC News Digital.

Katie Mogg

Katie Mogg is an intern at NBC News.

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