COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — A wave of recently passed abortion restrictions in the southeastern United States has prompted providers to scramble to reconfigure their services for a region that already has severely limited access.
South Carolina joined southern states that placed strict restrictions on the procedure Thursday as the governor signed a bill banning most abortions around six weeks pregnant, drawing an anticipated legal challenge from of the providers. The law goes into effect immediately.
“This is a great day for life in South Carolina, but the fight is not over. We stand ready to defend this legislation against any challenge and we are confident we will succeed,” South Carolina Republican Governor Henry McMaster said in a statement.
Pending stage-of-pregnancy bans in North Carolina and Florida, states that had refused to provide broader access to the procedure, threaten to further delay abortions as appointments pile up and doctors work to understand the new limitations.
“There really will be no way for the entire abortion ecosystem to handle everything,” said Jenny Black, president of Family planning South Atlantic.
Black, who oversees the organization’s work in North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and parts of Virginia, said providers have had to quickly determine how to comply with pending laws amid the “abortion access decimation.” throughout the South.” She hopes the new restrictions will compound stressors on a system that was already experiencing long wait times in North Carolina fueled by an influx of patients from Georgia and Tennessee.
Abortion is severely restricted across much of the South, including pregnancy bans in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. In Georgia, it is only allowed for the first six weeks.
TO report published in early April by the Planned Parenthood Society found increasing numbers of abortions in states close to those with the deepest restrictions, but where abortion had remained largely legal. Florida and North Carolina were among the states with the largest increases, and among those where new restrictions are pending.
Most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy will be banned in North Carolina starting July 1, and a six-week ban in Florida will take effect only if the state Supreme Court upholds the current 15-week ban.
South Carolina has also proven to be a key destination for people seeking abortions. Interim data from the state Department of Health showed an increased number of patients from out of state after the state supreme court struck down previous restrictions and allowed abortion to be legal for 22 weeks.
The new law signed by the governor of South Carolina will change that status, according to Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College. Myers, who studies the effects of reproductive policies, said limited evidence suggests that about half of people who want an abortion won’t be able to reach the six-week threshold.
“It will likely end up sending many desperate people seeking abortions even greater distances and result in even greater congestion at the facilities left to receive them,” Myers said.
The action comes as many state legislatures meet for their first regular sessions since the US Supreme Court struck down federal anti-abortion protections. In the past two months, Republican officials in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida have pushed Virginia closer to being a regional outlier as a place with relatively permissive access.
The flurry of activity at the state level has been welcomed by anti-abortion groups that have long undermined access. Caitlin Connors, southern regional director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, hailed the recent legislative changes as victories made possible by last summer’s ruling.
“We are officially in an era where states that have tried to pass pro-life laws—laws that would protect unborn children, laws that would also implement services for mothers, families, and babies—to finally be enacted and not be under the stranglehold of the Roe v. Wade,” Connors said.
That changing landscape has also increased uncertainty among providers that has prevented them from expanding services, Myers said, and will likely prevent some patients from miscarrying as doctors weigh what’s allowed and what’s not.
Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine doctor in North Carolina, said the new restrictions will make it much harder for her to help patients navigate the system. Although North Carolina republicans introduced the new 12-week limit as an intermediate change, Pettigrew pointed to other provisions that make it much more restrictive.
The new hurdles require women to visit a medical professional in person at least 72 hours before the procedure. The three-day waiting period may be initiated in advance over the phone. The law also requires a doctor to schedule a follow-up visit for women who have a medically induced abortion, adding to the hardship for those traveling from out of state.
Those regulations will make it more difficult to advise patients on their options, he said, especially when waiting periods already spanned two to four weeks in some cases.
Other delays may result from what Pettigrew called unclear exceptions for certain life-threatening conditions.
“Now we’re in this horrible purgatory of trying to figure out how to interpret it, how we can comply with the law,” Pettigrew said. “There are so many unknowns.”
Associated Press writer Hannah Schoenbaum contributed to this report from Raleigh, North Carolina.