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Florida abortion providers prepare for a public health crisis as state’s 6-week abortion ban draws closer

By Lauren Mascarenhas, Carlos Suarez and Denise Royal, CNN

(CNN) — At 19-years-old, Kelly Flynn was a patient seeking an abortion at a North Carolina abortion clinic. It wasn’t long before she began working at the same clinic, drawing on her experience to offer kindness and assistance to the patients around her.

“The work really found me,” she said.

Flynn now runs that clinic and four others across North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.

As president and CEO of A Woman’s Choice, she’s watched her clinics become a lifeline for patients in the South, where access to abortion is rapidly narrowing.

In Florida, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling Monday that triggered a six-week abortion ban approved by state lawmakers last year. On May 1, it will replace the state’s current 15-week ban.

“I could never imagine when I had my abortion 20-some years ago that I wouldn’t have that option,” Flynn said. “So many people don’t know that they’re even pregnant at six weeks.”

In the wake of the court ruling, providers with A Woman’s Choice and other clinics across the region are preparing for what they say will be a public health crisis. Their priority is getting vital medical care to the patients who will inevitably be shut out by the impending restrictions.

Navigating an abortion care desert

Flynn says A Woman’s Choice will not close the doors to its Jacksonville clinic. “Patients still need a place to go. They still need a place to go to figure out what’s next,” she said.

In many cases, that means physically getting the patients to providers who are legally able to help them.

“They’re all stepping up and saying, ‘You know what, we’ll travel with these patients if that’s what we need to do,’” Flynn said of her staff.

“We do have some money set aside to help patients with things like logistics and travel, gas, and food and diapers, but it’s a huge inconvenience for patients to have to travel over 1,000 miles to be able to have access to this care,” she added.

Flynn said their clinics, particularly in North Carolina, are seeing patients who cannot access abortion care in states like Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee. However, Florida’s six-week abortion ban is a huge blow to access in the region.

Last year, about 1 in 12 abortions nationwide and 1 in 3 abortions in the South were performed in Florida, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization that supports abortion rights. More than 9,000 people traveled from other states to get an abortion in Florida in 2023, the data shows. That’s around twice as many as 2020.

Planned Parenthood, a major abortion provider in the region, says they have already been connecting Florida patients and others to out-of-state care. Their closest option is North Carolina, where abortion is allowed up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. Next is Virginia, where it is allowed prior to the third trimester.

“Right now the state of Florida sees 84,000 patients [a year] for abortion care,” said Alexandra Mandado, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida. “The stark reality is that the fabric of abortion care in our nation cannot absorb 84,000 patients.”

“The entire South now, in a month, will be a desert for abortion care,” she added.

In the meantime, Florida abortion providers are working to see as many patients as possible before the six-week ban goes into effect.

Mandado says their clinics are opening up more ultrasound appointments to help confirm pregnancy and help with pregnancy-dating. They are also working on educating patients about the current reproductive care landscape, including when and where they can receive care.

“In the last year, we’ve hired more physicians – seeing this come down the pike – and we’ve flown in physicians from other states where we need them as well,” Mandado said.

Flynn said her clinics are rearranging schedules or double booking to accommodate the demand. That will mean increased wait times, but Flynn says patients are willing to wait.

“I’ve had patients that say, ‘I will wait here for 10 hours, as long as I walk out of here not pregnant,’” she said.

Patients in danger

With extreme restrictions on abortion care, providers are concerned that patients will take matters into their own hands.

“When a woman doesn’t want to be pregnant, she doesn’t want to be pregnant,” Flynn said.

“We fear patients are going to try to handle this themselves, and we’re going to see an uptick in patient injuries and miscarriages that are not managed appropriately,” she said. “We anticipate a lot of the ER’s are going to be starting to fill up with patients that are trying to manage their abortion on their own because they’re that desperate.”

Patients have already been forced to carry pregnancies against their will, with life-altering and sometimes life-threatening consequences, Mandado says.

“We’re starting to see people with compromised fertility when one pregnancy goes wrong and they’re not able to access abortion care – people that are hemorrhaging, that are having infections of the uterus that lead to infertility,” said Dr. Cherise Felix, a Planned Parenthood physician practicing in Florida.

Felix says she’s already had to turn patients away who are past the state’s 15-week limit for an abortion.

“You can just see the confusion set in. Most of the time they will cry. Sometimes we will cry with them,” Felix said.

Abortion on the ballot this fall

The Florida Supreme Court issued another ruling Monday, approving the wording of a proposed constitutional amendment that would protect the right to an abortion in Florida before fetal viability – approximately 24 weeks into pregnancy – or to protect patient health. The initiative will hit ballots in November and, if approved, could void both the 15-week and six-week abortion ban.

The amendment will need 60% of the vote to pass.

Even if voters approve the ballot initiative, experts say abortion rights in Florida may not be settled.

In her dissent, Justice Jamie R. Grosshans wrote the ballot amendment language was misleading.

“The voter may think this amendment results in settling this issue once and for all. It does not. Instead, this amendment returns abortion issues back to the courts to interpret scope, boundary, definitions, and policy, effectively removing it from the people and their elected representatives,” she wrote.

Some constitutional law experts believe the amendment leaves an opening for challenges, where a court could be asked to determine whether an unborn child has a right to life under Florida’s constitution.

Still, abortion rights advocates are throwing their support behind the ballot measure, hopeful it will restore access to patients who need it.

“If it passes, the people of Florida will have decided to protect the right to an abortion to some degree,” University of Miami law professor Caroline Mala Corbin said. “We’ll have to see.”

Flynn said A Woman’s Choice will be advocating for the measure and working to get as many voters registered as possible. She’s optimistic that it will pass.

“It’s not right that the politicians get to control the choices of patients and how they choose to want to move your family forward,” she said.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Deidre McPhillips contributed to this report.

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