UPDATE, February 9, 9:47 a.m.: SB 444 on Thursday passed Florida’s Republican-majority state senate, the Associated Press reports. The bill to permanently fund fake clinics now goes to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott (R).
GOP lawmakers in Florida are poised to pass legislation requiring the state to permanently contract with an organization that funnels taxpayer dollars to fake clinics, commonly known as anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs).
More than a dozen other states provide funding to fake clinics, which have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, as investigations have revealed they disseminate misinformation to people seeking abortion care and neglect to follow proper medical protocols.
Florida would be the first state to codify into law a requirement to contract with a specific organization to distribute grants to anti-choice organizations seeking to discourage people from obtaining abortion care.
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Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, told Rewire that while the proposal is not unprecedented, directing state funding to organizations is typically done through the budget process—not through codification.
“They have named individual corporations or networks in the budget process, but it is uncommon to name a specific entity, in this case the Florida Pregnancy Care Network, in statute—especially in a law that creates a no-bid contract indefinitely,” Ferrulo said.
State Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) presented SB 444 to the senate appropriations committee on Thursday. The bill was approved by the committee in a 12-6 vote, and on Friday it was placed on the calendar for a floor vote. The companion bill, HB 41, was passed by the house on January 12 by a 73-29 vote.
The Republican bill would require the Florida Department of Health to contract with the Florida Pregnancy Care Network (FPCN) for the management and delivery of pregnancy support and wellness services to eligible clients.
The contract would require FCPN to establish a network of subcontractors to provide pregnancy support and wellness services. The organization would only be able to approve subcontracts with providers that “exclusively promote and support childbirth.” The bill specifies that services provided by subcontractors may not include any religious content.
“SB 444 would codify into law fake clinics that oppose abortion and judge, shame, and intentionally try to trick women out of getting the care they are seeking,” Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said in a statement. “These sham health clinics have been known to mislead, judge and shame women to prevent them from obtaining abortions.”
Since 2009, FPCN has been awarded more than $22 million in state contracts. It was awarded a $3.95 million contract in 2017.
FPCN manages subcontracts with 61 direct service providers operating 105 facilities, according to a legislative analysis by the Florida House Health and Human Services committee. FPCN reported more than $3.6 million in government grants during 2015, according to the organization’s tax documents. During that time period, FPCN awarded $2,356,550 in reimbursements to 52 organizations.
The Florida Catholic Advocacy Network, the political arm of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, has campaigned in favor of the legislation. Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter in support of the bill to members of the senate committee.
Organizations associated with the Catholic church are the largest beneficiary of the program’s funding, receiving more than $494,000 in reimbursements in 2015. Since 2012, organizations associated with the church have received more than $1.65 million in reimbursements.
Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, which operates four Foundations of Life Pregnancy Centers in Tampa Bay, received $227,644 in reimbursements in 2015. The Foundations of Life website contains medically inaccurate information about abortion procedures and the risks associated with abortion care.
Rose Llauget, director of pregnancy and adoption services for Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, told the Tampa Bay Times that birth control pills are linked to cancer—a disproven anti-choice myth—and that women who have abortions are being “duped.”
Ferrulo said that organizations that promote this medically inaccurate information should not get state funding. “Women want objective, accurate information and comprehensive, professional counseling in order to make the best decision about their pregnancy,” Ferrulo said.
During Thursday’s committee hearing, Bean said any information the organization provides to clients must be medically accurate. “The Department of Health overseas the literature provided by the network,” Bean said. “They’re the ones that make sure that it is indeed medically accurate.”
But state Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) said that claim was contradicted by state officials. “When I contacted the Department of Health, they said that they currently do not review or approve any of the brochures or other materials that are funded through [state funds],” Book said.
Ferrulo said that it is “unconscionable and indefensible” that lawmakers support sending state funding to “unlicensed, largely unregulated” organizations, rather than supporting qualified and licensed health care providers who offer a full range of comprehensive reproductive health care.
“Crisis pregnancy centers offer the exact opposite of that. They deceive, they intimidate, and they shame Florida women,” Ferrulo said. “To send taxpayer dollars to operate these fake clinics is a gross failure of leadership by Florida legislators.”