May 9, 2024 - News

What a Florida health agency gets wrong about the abortion ban

posters and pamphlets in an abortion clinic. One reads "everyone loves someone who has had an abortion with an illustration of three smiling people

Supportive messages hang on a wall of the group counseling room in A Woman's Choice of Jacksonville clinic, which provides abortion care. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As Florida's six-week abortion ban went into effect last week, the state's health care regulation agency sought to refute one of its main criticisms: that many women won't know they're pregnant by that cutoff.

Why it matters: Far from setting the record straight, the agency's rebuttal was itself a misleading oversimplification, experts say.

State of play: "Pregnancy tests have evolved substantially over the years," the Agency for Health Care Administration said on May 1 on X, formerly known as Twitter. "Trace levels of [the pregnancy hormone] hCG can now be detected as early as eight days after ovulation."

  • The statement was included as part of a "Myth vs. Fact" information sheet shared on the state agency's official account to combat "lies and misinformation," per the post.
  • "Don't let the fearmongers lie to you," the sheet says in all caps.

Reality check: While pregnancy testing technology has improved, folks who aren't planning to get pregnant wouldn't know to use a test, said Sameera Mokkarala, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.

  • At-home early-detection tests are typically used by women hoping to become pregnant, Mokkarala, a Philadelphia-based abortion provider and gynecologist, told Axios.
  • And the earlier the test, the greater chance of a false negative.

What they're saying: "They're confusing the failure to recognize pregnancy with the ability to diagnose it early," retired Tampa obstetrician-gynecologist Bruce Shephard told Axios.

The other side: The agency's communications office did not return Axios' request for comment Wednesday.

By the numbers: In a study analyzing more than 17,000 pregnancies over 23 years, the mean gestational age by which respondents learned they were pregnant was 5.5 weeks.

  • Almost a quarter of women became aware of their pregnancy at or after seven weeks.
  • That late pregnancy awareness was more common among young people, Black and Hispanic women, and those experiencing poverty.

How it works: Gestational age is calculated using the first day of a patient's last period.

  • That leaves patients who don't want to continue their pregnancy with just two weeks after a missed period to arrange for abortion care before the six-week cutoff, Mokkarala said.
  • In Florida, that requires attending two in-person appointments at least 24 hours apart, per state law.
  • The six-week ban also prohibits patients from receiving abortion medication in the mail, although abortion-by-mail providers told the Tampa Bay Times they intend to continue sending pills under the protection of "shield laws" in states like California and Illinois.

Between the lines: That narrow timeline becomes more complicated when a patient doesn't have a regular, 28-day menstrual cycle, Mokkarala said. Up to a quarter of U.S. women don't, so a missed period wouldn't register.

  • Some patients also experience spotting early in pregnancy, which patients could misread as a lighter period.

The bottom line: "A six-week ban sets folks up for failure," Mokkarala said.

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