life after roe

Will Abortion Come Back to Bite DeSantis?

DeSantis celebrates signing a 2022 law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It wasn’t enough for anti-abortion activists. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Florida governor Ron DeSantis visited Iowa as he prepares to announce he’s running for president, and his pitch to Republicans is contained in his new book’s subtitle: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival. He can boast of turning his state into a national right-wing model where lockdowns aren’t tolerated and liberals are fully “owned” by a series of audacious state laws banning “wokeness” in all its forms. So far, it appears to be working, with DeSantis building a formidable head of steam to take on Donald Trump, who calls him a phony.

So Florida’s laws pertaining to abortion should be of special concern to anyone valuing reproductive rights. DeSantis and his party’s first pass on restrictive abortion laws could have been worse: Last April, just prior to the Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade, he signed a new law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. Since well over 90 percent of abortions are performed prior to 15 weeks of pregnancy (depending on the estimate), it was inevitable that Florida’s anti-abortion lobby and the Republican Party it all but controls would not be satisfied. Indeed, more stringent bans were enacted in other southern states (notably next-door Georgia), making Florida a medical-travel destination for women seeking abortions that are illegal in their own jurisdictions.

But while DeSantis made it clear he would be happy to accommodate GOP hopes for a more draconian law if one were sent to his desk, the word around Tallahassee, according to one source plugged into Florida politics, is that he was blindsided when Republican lawmakers introduced a six-week ban amid signs that it would move rapidly toward enactment. (Republicans have legislative supermajorities that make Democratic opposition futile and a few GOP defections tolerable.) Now DeSantis must quickly calculate how this might help or hurt his presidential ambitions.

The path of least resistance for DeSantis is to sign the bill as an indication of the people’s will as reflected by the legislature without offering the new law as a national model. But anti-abortion activists no longer accept a “state’s rights” approach to abortion law now that the federal constitutional right to choose has been abolished. One major anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony List, has made a 2024 litmus test out of support for a federal abortion ban at 15 weeks or fewer, preempting blue-state laws while allowing red-state laws that are even more restrictive, and other activists will likely follow. Allowing blue states to keep abortion legal as an exception to his general demands for “making America more like Florida” may enhance DeSantis’s general-election prospects, but that would be perilous in a Republican Party that has endorsed a full-on federal constitutional ban on all abortions in every national party platform since 1980. To activists who regard a fertilized ovum as a “baby” deserving full personhood rights, the kind of half a loaf DeSantis has previously championed just won’t be enough. They are especially powerful in Iowa, the first state on the Republican nomination-contest calendar, where DeSantis is polling about with Trump in terms of favorability.

The proposed Florida law does include an exception for rape or incest (though only if a court order or police report documents the cause of pregnancy), which puts Florida in sync with Trump’s otherwise incoherent position on what the law should be now that his justices have overturned Roe. DeSantis could try to nudge the law in one direction or another, but there is no position that can bridge the gap between respecting and abridging reproductive rights and no way for him to know which way Trump may weave on the subject. And DeSantis’s dilemma doesn’t just extend to the Republican primaries: An extremist position on abortion that might be helpful in wresting the nomination from the formidable Trump could be an enormous liability in the general election, where a solid majority of voters, including a sizable minority of Republicans, don’t want abortion outlawed.

A couple of factors complicate the Florida GOP’s freedom of action in this area. The state’s constitution includes an explicit right to privacy (similar to the right the Supreme Court inferred from the Constitution in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe), which in the past has been held to confer a right to an abortion. Indeed, a state judge initially put the 15-week ban on hold on these grounds, but the hold was overturned pending a Florida Supreme Court review. It’s generally expected that DeSantis’s appointees to that court will let the law (and probably a subsequent six-week ban) take full effect.

More ominously for the forced-birth lobby is that Florida is a state with citizen-initiated ballot measures. It’s already likely that an abortion-rights ballot initiative will appear as early as 2024, and enactment of a six-week ban will make a pro-choice initiative even more likely to appear and then to overcome Florida’s 60 percent approval requirement for constitutional amendments. Pro-choice advocates have won every abortion ballot measure — including those in red states like Kansas and Kentucky — since Roe was reversed. It could be more than embarrassing to DeSantis if his state moves tangibly toward the cancellation of a GOP abortion law as he’s running for president on a pledge to make America one big Florida.

All in all, DeSantis’s easy acquiescence to radical abortion legislation could represent a rare political misstep, making him even more of an ogre than he already is to many swing voters while proving himself an ineffective would-be tyrant who can’t control events in his own state.

Will Abortion Come Back to Bite Ron DeSantis?