Reproductive Justice Spotlight: Northeast Florida

Dawna Cornelissen

Dawna Cornelissen investigates access to abortion in Northern Florida, only to discover that her home county has no abortion provider—just a crisis pregnancy center.

Ever since getting involved in the pro-choice movement, I have wondered how the abortion debate plays out in the places I grew up. As I visited one of those places this past Memorial Day weekend, I decided to do a little investigating. Basically, I wanted to know how a woman in Fernandina Beach, Florida would go about obtaining an abortion. Fernandina Beach, the county seat of Nassau County, is the northern most point of Florida. It is located mostly on Amelia Island and sits just south of the Georgia/Florida border about 30 minutes north of Jacksonville. It is home to about 66,000 people, about half of which are female.

My investigation began by doing internet searches. When I found nothing, I began asking around. What I soon found out is that Fernandina Beach has no abortion provider. In fact, Nassau County is among the 70% of Florida counties with no abortion provider. To be sure, I called the Nassau County Health Department. After being transferred a few times, I was finally told the closest abortion provider was about 45 minutes away in Jacksonville.

Instead, what I did find in Fernandina Beach was a crisis pregnancy center. A Care Net Pregnancy Center, called Greater Nassau Women's Services, is located on a main stretch that leads directly to the beach. This particular agency proudly proclaimed "Free Pregnancy Tests" on its roadside sign, so I went there with a friend who actually needed the free pregnancy test. While there, she had to fill out a form which asked questions like, "How would you describe your relationship with God?" She was then taken upstairs while I was asked to wait in the waiting room where I collected brochures and read Focus on the Family's monthly magazine.

When my friend was finished, we left and I asked her to tell me what happened. She said it began with a counseling session about premarital sex, abortion, and contraception. My friend then took the test, which came back negative, and the appointment ended with a post-counseling session. My friend's overall reaction was that the messaging was very religious and anti-abortion. While she was not given any misinformation about abortion, she did say that the woman looked shocked when my friend said she would consider abortion as an option.

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I find it interesting that an agency like this exists in such a small community that doesn't even have an abortion provider. Although it is a very conservative and religious area, I expected more from the town where I graduated high school. After all, Fernandina Beach was the home to Dr. John Britton, the abortion provider murdered outside a Pensacola women's clinic in 1994. It has been almost 13 years since anti-abortion extremist Paul Hill shot Dr. Britton; during that time "Doc's" legacy seems to have all but faded away.

After a brief interview with Planned Parenthood of Northeast Florida's (PPNF) CEO, Carol Anne Steiger, I learned even more about the strength of the anti-abortion movement in the area. She noted that although there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the Jacksonville metropolitan area, there is a strong anti-abortion religious base coming from a combination of the Catholic Diocese in St. Augustine and the mega churches of Jacksonville. But, Ms. Steiger also explained, PPNF is growing by working with area organizations like the Jacksonville Area National Organization for Women and the Women's Center of Jacksonville. Furthermore, Ms. Steiger believes, and I agree, that the answer is in the young, single women's vote because single women still vote less than married women.

I will leave you with this statement from Women's Voices. Women Vote: "Forty-eight million unmarried women live in this country. If they all voted and elected officials who supported the policies that addressed their needs, real social change could occur."

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