Florida's abortion laws protect a pregnant person's life, but not for mental health
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When Baileigh Johnson found out she was pregnant, she said she was afraid for her life. She'd been battling anxiety, an eating disorder and was having suicidal thoughts.
"[I] just remember thinking two things: one, that I needed help and two, that this depression and suicidality is not something that can continue to be passed down in our family," Johnson says
Johnson says her grandmother, mother and sister had all previously attempted suicide.
Her doctors told her she needed to begin immediately treating her mental health. They also said the medicine she would need to get on might not be safe during her pregnancy.
She knew she needed to move forward with treatment and couldn't fathom the idea of bringing a child into a world she no longer wanted to be in. Johnson and her husband live together in Jacksonville. They had been married for about a year when they decided to move forward with an abortion.
Under a new six-week abortion ban signed late Thursday by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, and under the state's active 15-week abortion ban, there are exceptions when the life of the pregnant person is at risk, but not if the danger stems from a psychological condition. That's the case in several states around the country.
"I don't think it's something that anyone takes lightly," Johnson says. "I don't think any person of reproductive ability grows up dreaming, or hoping, or wishing they get to experience abortion one day. I don't think people who support choice are saying that it's not difficult, but it's necessary, and it can be life-saving, and it can be a blessing, and it can be life-affirming."
Pregnant people often struggle to access mental healthcare
Doctors can be reluctant to provide mental health care to pregnant people in part because of a lack of clinical research on the use of psychotropic medication during pregnancy. Beyond that, simply navigating the system—finding a provider, getting an appointment and covering the cost—is difficult. That's concerning for Heather Flynn, a psychologist and chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at Florida State University, especially since suicide is a leading causes of maternal mortality.
Additionally, Flynn says, one in five people will experience a mood or anxiety disorder during pregnancy or in the postpartum period, often for the first time in their lives.
"Our health care system is not set up to detect these risk levels in women early enough in the pregnancy," Flynn explains. "More than two-thirds of women don't get the help they need during and after pregnancy."
Republicans and groups against abortion rights have argued receiving an abortion is more likely to lead to negative mental health outcomes. During a recent committee hearing on the proposed six-week ban, Andrew Shervill, who founded the group Florida Voice for the Unborn, said "the real mental crisis is caused by abortion, not pregnancy." But Flynn says studies show that's not the case.
"When you look in the acute period of making that decision, you might see some elevated anxiety, some elevated symptoms of depression," Flynn says. "But when you look at whether people actually have psychiatric disorders, the rates are higher if you carry a pregnancy to term and deliver a baby."
For anyone, having a baby is a major decision. For a person with a psychiatric condition, or who develops one during pregnancy, Flynn says the factors included in making that decision need to be considered even more carefully.
"Just like if a woman had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy – or some kind of medical treatment that was dangerous – they probably would put off their pregnancy until they were in remission," says Flynn, "so that they could bring on the new baby."
Johnson says one abortion saved three lives
For Johnson, an abortion gave her time to get care and get healthy. Since her first interview for this story, she's had a few life updates. She started a new job working for Planned Parenthood and is happy to report she's expecting twins.
Johnson said if she hadn't been able to end her first pregnancy, "not only would I probably not be here today because of the suicidal thoughts that were going on at the moment during our first pregnancy etc., but the two little ones that we're expecting any day now wouldn't be here."
Johnson, who identifies as a Christian, says twins are not common in her family and she didn't use any fertility treatments to conceive. After her abortion, she sees the fact that she's carrying two babies as a bit of a heavenly nod.
"I had sort of prayed this prayer in my heart, that while I knew this wasn't the time or place for this soul to come into the world, that one day – if I could get better – maybe that could happen," Johnson says. "And finding out [this pregnancy] was twins just felt like confirmation of all I had experienced in terms of God's approval for our choice."
Johnson says, "It's just something that I can't prove is true, but it's something I know in my heart to be."
If Johnson's children also struggle with mental health she says she's learned better tools to pass to them, and that she's better able to advocate for herself and her need to continue taking some medications during this pregnancy.
The newly signed six-week ban won't go into effect immediately. It's essentially a trigger ban and won't activate unless a privacy provision in Florida's state Constitution is found to no longer protect the right to abortion. The conservative state supreme court has agreed to hear arguments in a lawsuit against Florida's current 15-week abortion limit.
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