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Republican leaders in South Dakota, Florida push abortion restrictions ahead of Supreme Court ruling

Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Republican lawmakers in Florida and South Dakota are moving forward with efforts to restrict abortions, announcing new proposals that would drastically limit options on how and when a pregnancy can be terminated.

During her State of the State address Tuesday, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem announced she will seek to ban all abortions starting at about six weeks of pregnancy, falling in line with Texas’s highly restrictive antiabortion law introduced last summer.

“Science tells us that an unborn child’s heartbeat starts six weeks after conception. And any abortion after that point stops that heartbeat,” Noem said, claiming that over the past decade, abortions have “dropped sharply” in the state largely because of policies passed by Republican legislators. “Today, I am asking all of you to protect the heartbeats of these unborn children.”

Two Florida lawmakers, meanwhile, introduced bills Tuesday seeking to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions only when the mother is facing serious medical risk or when there are fatal fetal abnormalities.

The Florida legislative proposal and Noem’s announcement are part of a wave of Republican-led antiabortion efforts in several states in the past year, as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a Mississippi case that could overhaul the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing the right to abortion nationwide.

The pending Supreme Court decision, expected to come in the spring, appears likely to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week ban, potentially upending nearly a half-century of jurisprudence on abortion rights and paving a legal path for other states, such as Florida and South Dakota, to defend their initiatives and push for even more aggressive restrictions and narrow windows for exceptions.

Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law who specializes in the legal history of reproduction, said the latest proposals signal the range of abortion limitations GOP-controlled legislatures might pursue after the court’s ruling; they could either move to severely restrict access, ban abortion outright or land somewhere in the middle, as in the case of Florida lawmakers’ proposal.

Noem, a rising figure in the Republican Party who may have 2024 presidential ambitions, also announced Tuesday that she will seek to change state law to ban abortions carried out with pills after a video consultation with a medical expert if the Supreme Court overturns legal precedent.

“I look forward to the day when all unborn lives are protected,” she said, adding that the Supreme Court has a “historic opportunity to make that a reality.” Under current laws, abortions in South Dakota are unlawful after 22 weeks of gestation.

Florida’s legislative proposal follows efforts in other states, including Alabama, Arkansas and Ohio, to fashion similar or exact versions of the Texas law known as SB8, which restricts abortions after six weeks and allows citizens to sue anyone who performs or aids in an abortion. Doctors who oppose so-called heartbeat bills say that what appears to be a heartbeat at six weeks is actually a vibration of developing tissues. That vibration is a medical term called embryonic cardiac activity.

Both the Mississippi and Texas laws are facing multiple legal challenges.

The Florida proposal introduced by Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Erin Grall does not make any exceptions for cases of rape or incest. It also requires providers to document the number of pregnancies terminated by medication and to file that information with a state agency. Existing Florida law restricts abortions after 24 weeks.

“Having once been a scared teenage mother myself, I understand the turmoil of a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy. Women and children deserve better than abortion,” Stargel, who has filed several other abortion bills during her time in the Senate, said in a written statement to The Washington Post.

“While laws cannot change hearts, they are a clear indication of what we value as a state. Florida is a state that values life, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on legislation to further protect the innocent lives ended by abortion,” she added.

Unlike other states that have passed restrictive legislation, Florida historically has had strong protections for abortion rights, and its population holds less staunch antiabortion views. Although both the state Senate and House are controlled by the Republican Party, lawmakers have routinely rejected strict abortion initiatives.

In that sense, Ziegler said, this bill may be a “bellwether” for similar Republican states that are in a more middle-ground position but still need to respond to their antiabortion constituents.

Ziegler argued that up until now, states were able to draft and pass a number of laws “to look tough on abortion” with the full expectation that those laws would never be enforced. “Now that Roe is expected to be overruled, both Florida and South Dakota cases can serve as previews of what lawmakers in those states really want their laws to look like,” she added.

The actions in both states could also reflect the legal battles over abortion access likely to play out in courts and states across the country in the near future, Ziegler added.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is up for reelection this fall, suggested Tuesday he will support the legislation.

“I think there’s a lot of pro-life legislation, and we will be welcoming it,” DeSantis said Tuesday during a news conference at the Florida Capitol, according to Politico. “Having protections make a lot of sense.”

DeSantis was one of 12 GOP governors who signed an amicus brief in July calling on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, arguing that states should be left to decide themselves whether abortion is legally allowed.

Abortion rights groups condemned both states’ efforts.

“We know that there isn’t a single state in the country where abortion bans are popular. Yet from Florida to South Dakota, these state politicians aren’t slowing down on their extreme attacks and misinformed and dangerous rhetoric,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “It is clear from these brazen attacks on our right to safe, legal abortion that lawmakers have been emboldened.”

Read more:

Supreme Court seems inclined to uphold Mississippi abortion law that would undermine Roe v. Wade

Abortion bans and sanctuary plans: States are preparing for a possible future without Roe v. Wade

Abortion providers seek quick resolution in challenge to Texas law