What is striking about the Florida GOP’s latest attack on abortion rights — “fetal heartbeat” bills have been tried before — is how little interest these Republicans take in trying to prevent the unplanned pregnancies that lead to abortions.
Adoption, Republicans’ long-preferred solution, is wonderful. But relying on adoption is also profoundly unrealistic. Given the choice between terminating a pregnancy or going through almost 10 months of pregnancy and then giving up the child, women will typically choose the former. And, in any case, not enough people want to adopt. Florida is no exception.
Women could be spared the painful choice between terminating an unwanted pregnancy or surrendering their babies by making birth control more accessible and affordable, and by ensuring that young people are better-educated about sex and its possible repercussions.
So I was puzzled this summer when Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, chose not to reduce abortions by making contraception more readily available in the state. DeSantis vetoed a bipartisan bill in June that would have provided $2 million to help low-income women gain access to long-acting reversible contraception, such as IUDs and hormonal implants. Those forms of contraception are considered especially effective because they are less vulnerable to human error.
The bill wasn’t much, but it was a start. The fact that it even reached DeSantis’s desk was a marvel, considering the conservative tilt of the state’s legislature.
DeSantis, who is staunchly pro-life, vetoed the bill weeks after receiving a letter from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops object to the use of long-acting contraception, particularly hormonal IUDs, because they can prevent an embryo from implanting into a woman’s uterus, so they deem them “abortifacients.”
Data shows that lower-income women and young women face more barriers to birth-control access. Low-income women also account for a larger share of abortions. Without insurance, some women can’t afford contraception or don’t have the money to visit doctors who must prescribe it or, in some cases, insert the device. Medicaid covers contraception, but not all low-income women are eligible. Florida, for example, chose not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Even the president of the state Senate, Wilton Simpson, an ardent right-to-lifer who championed the contraception bill — but also called the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to block the Texas law “encouraging” — seemed surprised by the veto.
When urging his colleagues to support the bill, Simpson cited a well-known Colorado program funded through private donations that offered low-income women IUDs and implants. The initiative’s results were impressive: Between 2009 and 2014, teen births and abortions both declined by nearly half. Despite the program’s success, securing Colorado funding has been a struggle.
DeSantis also worked against reducing abortions in Florida this year by signing into law a bill that weakened an increasingly anemic sex education program in schools. Local school boards in Florida already have almost full control over how sex ed is taught in districts. The only state requirement is instruction on the benefits of abstinence. Now, under the new law, parents can choose to opt out of having their children receive any sex education at all.
Opponents to sex education argue that it is the job of parents to talk to their children about sex. But many don’t, or they do it reluctantly or sparingly, maybe even clumsily or misleadingly. (I know many mothers who have yet to talk to their children about online pornography, which is ubiquitous and has warped the sexual expectations of mostly young men and boys but also young women.)
But it is access to contraception that remains the simplest, most direct way of stopping unwanted pregnancies and reducing the abortion rate. Some Republicans recognize that more needs to be done, and a few have acted: Seventeen states, including Republican-led states such as Arizona and Arkansas, allow pharmacists to prescribe contraceptives.
As Simpson said about contraception, “it just gives these young women an opportunity to live a life that otherwise is not available to them.”
At least Simpson, unlike DeSantis and many of his Republican allies, is not a hypocrite. He understands that a crucial piece of the puzzle is not getting pregnant in the first place.