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How Six-Week Abortion Bans Went From Fringe to Reality

Just over a decade ago, six-week abortion bans were seen as too radical even by many members of the anti-abortion movement, who worried they carried too much political and legal risk.

On Wednesday, Florida became the latest state to put one into effect.

The law, which was signed last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, cuts off access to the procedure before many women even know they are pregnant, leaving millions of women in the South hundreds of miles from a clinic offering abortion.

The ban represents another victory for the true believers of the anti-abortion movement that seek sharp curbs on the procedure. But when such a ban was first introduced, mainstream abortion opponents who preferred gradually chipping away at abortion rights felt such restrictions could backfire and undermine their broader goals.

My colleague Elizabeth Dias covers religion and is the author, with Lisa Lerer, of a forthcoming book about the fall of Roe v. Wade. I asked her how the six-week ban moved from the fringe to the mainstream — and why those early warnings from anti-abortion allies might be coming true now. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

When did the concept of six-week abortion bans first emerge?

The Florida law didn’t just come out of nowhere — it’s related to a push that began more than a decade ago, in Ohio. There, in 2011, an evangelical activist, Janet Porter, began to advocate for a bill that would ban abortion when a fetal “heartbeat” is detectable, about six or eight weeks into a pregnancy.

That was during former President Barack Obama’s first term, a time when the Tea Party was rising and the anti-abortion movement was fairly weak relative to its power today. The fall of Roe was a long way away. How did leaders of the anti-abortion movement react to Porter’s proposal?

The big players in the anti-abortion movement were focused on incremental change, on moving the needle slowly. Porter and her wing of the anti-abortion movement were considered really fringe. Groups like Ohio Right to Life and the state’s Catholic conference refused to support the ban, which they thought could be dangerous, and unproductive, for their movement because it seemed too extreme. The bill didn’t pass that year — it didn’t pass, in fact, until 2019.

The concept of the “heartbeat bill”banning abortion as early as six weeks traveled far beyond Ohio. Why did the movement come to embrace it?

Many opponents of abortion have a deep and often spiritual conviction that, at the moment of conception, a fully human person worthy of rights is created, and they have worked hard to rally the public to think of a fertilized cell in this way. So the way that this wing of the movement started to talk about it was, well, what’s more human than the heart?

It’s important to note, though, that this was a powerful messaging tactic and that embryos don’t have fully developed hearts that early in a pregnancy. Most experts actually describe what is detected at this point as an electric pulse from a primitive tube of cardiac cells.

When did these bans start picking up speed, and actually passing?

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a pivot point for the whole movement. Legislators in Ohio soon advanced their six-week bill, although it was vetoed. The window of what was possible suddenly expanded for them, although with Roe still in place, the mainstream anti-abortion movement didn’t see six-week bans as an effective way to undercut the country’s abortion protections.

But once the balance of power on the Supreme Court shifted with the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, things changed. When state legislatures met in 2019, they began to pass a wave of abortion restrictions. Five states, including Ohio, passed so-called heartbeat bills that banned abortion as early as six weeks. Missouri passed a bill banning abortion around 8 weeks, and Alabama also passed a ban on abortion. Those bans could not immediately take effect because of Roe, but it was all part of laying the groundwork for what they hoped would be its eventual fall.

When doctors measure the length of a pregnancy, they start from the date of a woman’s last period, which is about two weeks before conception is possible. So a six-week ban is an even smaller window than some people realize.

Yes. The point of all of these laws is to stop as many abortions as possible — the movement talks about making abortion “unthinkable.” And some of the people who initially worried about a six-week ban ended up supporting them. But it became so broadly unpopular after Roe was overturned, others pushed 15-week bans instead, though that’s not their ultimate goal, either. This is a movement that thinks and plans in generations.

For much of the history of the six-week ban, lawmakers voted for such measures knowing they couldn’t be put in place. How has support for these bans changed since the fall of Roe?

Thirteen years ago, in Ohio, some abortion opponents warned that a six-week ban could hurt their movement. The reaction to the Florida law shows us that they may have been right all along.

The Florida law is completely controversial. Yes, they’re achieving their goal of limiting abortion access, in practical terms, but they’re taking on a huge risk, too, since this fall voters will have a chance to enshrine the protection of abortion rights into their state constitution through a ballot measure.

So the anti-abortion movement is experiencing real whiplash. They’re achieving policy goals they’ve been pursing for years, and they stand to lose them for having overreached — which was a fear many of them had at the very beginning with Janet Porter’s law.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida enacted the six-week ban last year as part of a conservative push to bolster his national campaign.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

The backlash in Florida

For a long time, a six-week abortion ban was not considered as seriously in Florida as it was in other states. That changed last year, when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it as he stacked up conservative policy victories ahead of his presidential run. I asked The New York Times’s Miami bureau chief, Patricia Mazzei, to tell us how his decision to sign the ban may have actually intensified the campaign for expanded abortion rights in Florida.

In 2022, DeSantis signed a 15-week abortion ban at a big church near Orlando. But when he signed the six-week ban, he did it behind closed doors. That signaled, I think, that he knew it was going pretty far for a state where public opinion polls still suggested most Floridians wanted legal abortion far beyond six weeks.

Critics of the ban channeled their efforts into gathering petition signatures to put an amendment on the ballot that would directly ask Floridians if they wanted to expand abortion access, and bring it back up to about 24 weeks. They had begun that effort after the 15-week ban was enacted, but it really ramped up after the six-week ban was signed. They were successful, and that question will appear on the ballot in November.

So the people who feel that the ban is wrong, they feel like there is a way out, that there is light at the end of the tunnel if they can get this passed. They have a way to channel their anger, or their opposition — although the ballot measure will require more than 60 percent support to pass, and that’s a high threshold.

The anti-abortion movement’s victory was really attenuated by this ballot measure, and they are now gearing up for a tough campaign.

— Patricia Mazzei

Read more of Patricia’s coverage of Florida’s abortion ban:

  • Florida’s abortion ban is now law, with political implications

  • Inside an abortion clinic in the last days before the six-week ban

  • Florida’s abortion ban will cut off a major access point in the South

… and more abortion news

  • Vice President Kamala Harris seized on Florida’s ban at a campaign event in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday, warning that a second Trump term would bring “more bans, more suffering, less freedom.”

  • The Arizona State Senate repealed the state’s 1864 law banning abortion. Two Republicans broke with their party and joined Democrats in backing the repeal.

  • In an interview with Time magazine on Tuesday, Trump refused to commit to veto a national abortion ban.

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