Sen. Book, who represents parts of Broward County, filed a bill Monday (SB 256) that would enact stronger regulatory requirements for state-funded crisis pregnancy centers, which are nonmedical facilities that often advertise abortion-related services without actually providing them.
They’re typically affiliated with religious organizations that oppose abortion, and don’t have to be licensed or inspected in Florida in order to operate. They’re also not subject to HIPAA, the federal patient privacy law.
“Women deserve access to legitimate and trusted reproductive healthcare services, and the freedom to safely receive care without fear of misinformation, harassment, or harm,” Sen. Book, a Democrat who was arrested earlier this year for protesting abortion bans, said in a statement
“It's long past time for Florida to prioritize women's health, protect the safety of doctors and patients, and ensure that public funds are directed toward accurate and accountable healthcare services,” she added.There are over 160 of these crisis pregnancy centers, also known as pregnancy resource centers, in the state of Florida alone, according to a tracker from Abortion Access Front. They outnumber actual abortion clinics in Florida three to one. And to clarify: They do not offer abortion services.
Approximately 100 of Florida’s anti-abortion pregnancy centers are overseen by the Florida Pregnancy Care Network, a private, tax-exempt nonprofit that the state tasks with overseeing and pumping funds into these pregnancy centers. That’s according to its online location database. Only about half of those locations are listed in a 2021 tax filing for organizations they distributed funds to that exceed $5,000.
About eight locations promoted by the nonprofit are within 50 miles of downtown Orlando, with names like “Apopka Pregnancy Center” and “Beyond Pregnancy Care.”
Anti-abortion pregnancy centers, which advertise services such as free pregnancy tests and free ultrasounds, have been known to provide medically inaccurate information — claiming abortion causes cancer, for instance. Many also often advertise themselves as “medical” facilities without having a medical license or any licensed healthcare professionals on staff.
The legislation filed by Book would require pregnancy centers to provide information that is medically accurate (with fines for those who fail to comply), and would require the state Department of Health to complete annual financial and compliance audits. According to Floridians for Reproductive Freedom, a coalition of groups that support abortion rights, oversight of these facilities has grown more lax over time.
Book’s attempt to bolster that is certainly a timely effort. Crisis pregnancy centers got a big boost in state funding under Florida’s new abortion law, which gifts $25 million in recurring annual funding for CPCs, up from $4.45 million — a fivefold increase.
Sen. Book’s bill, entitled “Pregnancy and Wellness Services,” wouldn’t affect pregnancy centers that don’t receive state funding, such as Choices Women’s Clinic.
Choices is a private, religious nonprofit based in Central Florida that operates a facility in Orlando on West Colonial Drive and a location in Oviedo near the University of Central Florida. The nonprofit, which is explicitly anti-abortion in nature, is planning to open a new location in Kissimmee, less than one mile from the city’s only abortion clinic, in December. Its mission is to “CHANGE abortion in Orlando until there are ZERO.”
“Our state claims to be a beacon of freedom, but abortion bans, health care restrictions, and the funneling of $25 million annually into fake clinics that peddle anti-abortion propaganda infringe upon those principles,” said Book. “Until women are free to make their own choices about reproductive health, our state is not truly free.”
Book on Monday also filed a bill (SB 254) that would prohibit protesting or picketing within 150 feet of licensed health care facilities, including abortion clinics. The bill would specifically prohibit activity that’s done “with the intent to harass or disturb an individual in or about such facility or to disturb or disrupt the operations of the facility.”
Violators would be subject to arrest and a second-degree misdemeanor charge — provided they don’t adhere to a warning from law enforcement to knock it off and disperse. Law enforcement would first have to give them a warning before any charges are pressed.
Such a prohibition would have local relevance. One of Orlando’s two abortion clinics, the Center of Orlando for Women, is visited nearly every day by protesters. One of the regular protesters, John Barros, has been protesting the clinic’s operation for 20 years and is outside most weekdays. A local volunteer clinic escort group guards the premises with the clinic’s permission, escorting patients inside its doors and back to their vehicles after they leave.
While the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act of 1994 makes it a federal crime to use force or threat of force, physical obstruction, intentional injury, and intimidation against abortion providers and their patients, it does not outlaw nonviolent protest. For example: shouting at people, chanting, following people as they walk back to their cars, and holding up signs.
It’s unclear if this bill would hold up in the courts, however, if anti-abortion activists tried to pursue legal action. Similar restrictions on protest activity outside of abortion clinics have faced legal challenges, and several of Florida’s Supreme Court justices have ties to the anti-abortion movement themselves.Sen. Book’s office did not respond to Orlando Weekly’s request for comment on this potential complication ahead of publication.
The likelihood of Book’s legislation being passed, or even considered, by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature is slim. But if the bills were to pass, the crisis pregnancy center bill would take effect July 1, 2024, and the ban on protesting outside healthcare facilities would take effect Oct. 1, 2024.
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