6 in 10 Women Now Subjected to Abortion Waiting Period Laws

Thanks to new legislation in Florida, six out of 10 women in the U.S. live in states with abortion waiting period laws.

03.01.16 5:01 AM ET

Florida women will now have to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion after an appeals court allowed a once-blocked 2015 state law to go into effect last Friday.

In so doing, Florida has become the second-most populous state, behind Texas, to impose a legally mandated waiting period on women seeking abortion.

But Florida’s waiting period law also marks a significant tipping point in a nationwide trend of abortion restrictions: Six out of 10 women in the U.S. now live in a state where an abortion waiting period law is in effect.

According to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau population estimates cross-referenced with data on waiting period laws maintained by the Guttmacher Institute, 59 percent of the U.S. population lives in states that require women to wait between 18 and 72 hours before receiving an abortion. Prior to the Florida law taking effect, the majority was not nearly as clear, with 53 percent of the population spread across 27 states affected by waiting period laws.

Broken down to look exclusively at women of reproductive age, 58 percent of women and girls between 15 and 44 now live in a state with a waiting period law in effect. Before the Florida ruling, it was a more even split: 53 percent of women of reproductive age were affected, 47 percent unaffected.

This threshold was crossed just days before oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a Supreme Court case that will decide whether or not current restrictions in Texas place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion.

Florida’s waiting period law was signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Scott last June but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) quickly filed for an injunction. The day before the law was scheduled to take effect, a Florida judge blocked it, but the state appealed. Now, a three-judge panel at the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee has lifted the injunction, effectively enacting the waiting period statewide.

Like 13 other states’ laws, Florida’s waiting period legislation, HB 633, requires the physician to be “physically present in the same room” as the patient when providing the state-mandated counseling. This forces women to make two trips to an abortion provider on separate days—a requirement that can be logistically and financially challenging, especially for low-income women. Only two of these states make specific concessions for women who live more than 100 miles away from an abortion provider.

In Florida, a medical emergency can nullify the waiting period. If a Florida woman is pregnant as the result of rape, incest, domestic violence—or if pregnancy would cause her serious bodily harm—she will still have to wait 24 hours before terminating her pregnancy unless she can provide her physician with written evidence of her situation, such as a restraining order or a police report.

“This ruling will harm women in Florida,” said Julia Kaye, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, in a press statement. “A woman who has decided to have an abortion should be able to get one without the state putting up unnecessary roadblocks to prevent her from getting the care she needs.”

The CRR has promised to continue challenging the 24-hour requirement.

“We vow to fight this law until the courts permanently strike it down, ensuring that Florida women are able to get the health care they need,” said Autumn Katz, senior CRR staff attorney.

Florida’s waiting period law will affect a sizable population—according to 2013 estimates, 3.8 million women of reproductive age live in Florida—but other states have even stricter legislation.

In Missouri, for example, women must show up in person for counseling, receive state-mandated information that states, “the life of each human being begins at conception,” and then wait 72 hours before receiving an abortion.

Oklahoma also has a 72-hour waiting period after women receive a printed packet of state information containing the loaded statement, “Abortion shall terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.”

South Dakota’s 72-hour waiting period excludes weekends and holidays, which forces some women to wait longer there than they would anywhere else in the country.

Opponents of abortion rights say that these waiting period laws give women enough time to decide whether or not they really want an abortion. However, early research on the subject suggests that the majority of women experience waiting periods as an obstacle, not as a decision-making aid.

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One study of over 5,000 women seeking an abortion at a U.S. clinic published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health found that 87 percent were already highly confident in their decision before counseling.

One-third of female respondents to a Texas survey conducted by the Population Research Center at University of Texas at Austin said that the state’s 24-hour waiting period had a “negative effect on their emotional well-being.”

“The extra visit is burdensome for some women and adds additional cost to the procedure, but it does not change women’s minds about having the abortion,” the researchers concluded.

Given these findings, Florida’s new 24-hour waiting period is not likely to change many women’s minds. Instead, with a single ruling, three judges have given nearly 60 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age yet another hoop to jump through before getting an abortion.