Florida legislators may vastly expand state funds for anti-abortion pregnancy centers

The glass outside the Pregnancy Help Medical Clinics location in North Miami reads: “FREE pregnancy Testing, Walk-Ins Welcome, Ultrasound Verification, Confidential.”

Inside, it looks like a medical office: fake plants, a generic painting of an ocean and a TV tuned to a cooking show channel. There is a reception desk with a closed-off window and a sign that reads: “Your donation is greatly appreciated! We are only funded by the community.” But that isn’t entirely true: Heartbeat of Miami, the nonprofit that runs this center, was awarded more than $1.4 million in state funding between 2017 and 2021.

Although the Pregnancy Help Medical Clinics claim to be medical facilities, their mission is to dissuade pregnant people from considering abortion.

Now, Republican lawmakers in Florida are proposing a more than fivefold increase in taxpayer funding for anti-abortion centers like the Pregnancy Help Medical Clinics, to $25 million from $4.45 million in 2022.

The proposal is tucked at the bottom of a new bill that would ban abortions past six weeks of pregnancy, dramatically reducing access from the 15-week limit signed into law last year.

For decades, reproductive rights groups have warily eyed so-called crisis pregnancy centers that often have the appearance of abortion clinics but in reality steer women toward parenting or adoption. These centers also typically discourage the use of contraceptives.

Most offer free ultrasounds, a strategy that centers use to change women’s minds by offering a “window to the womb,” according to industry leaders. Many also open near abortion clinics in an attempt to intercept patients. Their online ads come up during searches for abortion care, an issue that Google has aimed to address. More than 2,500 centers are open across the country, with nearly 160 in Florida. About a dozen are in South Florida, many located in Spanish-speaking and lower-income communities.

The proposed funding increase is part of a national anti-abortion campaign spearheaded by Republican-dominated state legislatures. The goal is to expand the reach of pregnancy centers following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer to overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision that protected abortion rights for half a century.

Kirsten Castillo from Kendall stands over her protest sign while attending the ‘Bans Off Our Bodies’ rally at Ives Estates Park in Miami-Dade, Florida on Saturday, May 14, 2022. The rally was held after a U.S. Supreme Court draft was leaked signaling the justices’ intent to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Kirsten Castillo from Kendall stands over her protest sign while attending the ‘Bans Off Our Bodies’ rally at Ives Estates Park in Miami-Dade, Florida on Saturday, May 14, 2022. The rally was held after a U.S. Supreme Court draft was leaked signaling the justices’ intent to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Florida is among 14 states that fund pregnancy centers through “alternatives-to-abortion” programs, funneling millions in taxpayer money to the anti-abortion movement. This year, at least three additional states — Kansas, Tennessee and West Virginia — are considering new plans to fund pregnancy centers.

The proposal, which would be funded by the state’s general revenue, is a provision within the Senate version of the six-week abortion ban bill, filed by Sen. Erin Grall, R-Fort Pierce, and co-introduced by Republican Sens. Joe Gruters of Sarasota and Clay Yarborough of Jacksonville. It includes exceptions for rape and incest until 15 weeks of pregnancy, but only if a victim provides documentation of the crime, such as a medical record or police report.

“The $25 million appropriation is really to go to all families, all mothers who are looking for support at this time in their life,” Grall said at a Senate Health Policy Committee hearing Monday. Committee members voted 7-4 to advance the bill.

‘The $25 million appropriation is really to go to all families, all mothers who are looking for support at this time in their life,’ said Republican Sen. Erin Grall, a sponsor of the bill.
‘The $25 million appropriation is really to go to all families, all mothers who are looking for support at this time in their life,’ said Republican Sen. Erin Grall, a sponsor of the bill.

While the bill would inject millions into the centers’ cause, it does nothing to increase oversight of the pregnancy center industry in Florida. An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that most centers operate in a kind of regulatory dead zone, free of significant state and federal oversight. Most states, including Florida, don’t require pregnancy centers that provide medical services to be licensed or inspected. They’re also not required to comply with the federal patient privacy law known as HIPAA. In many states, tanning salons, massage parlors and even pet stores face significantly stricter oversight.

The House version of the six-week abortion ban bill does not include the $25 million proposal. A Florida House committee voted to advance the bill last week.

If the six-week restriction is signed into law, it would run up against an already filed legal challenge to Florida’s 15-week abortion limit based on grounds that it violates the state Constitution’s privacy clause. That case is pending before the Florida Supreme Court. The six-week ban would not go into effect until the court issues its decision. The funding for pregnancy centers, however, would go into effect immediately if it is included in the appropriations bill approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor.

The law would effectively end Florida’s status as one of the last remaining abortion-access states in the South. Over the past six years, more than 440,000 abortions were performed in Florida, with nearly 23,000 patients traveling from other states. With a Republican supermajority in the Legislature, the bill is likely to pass.

Grall and Yarborough did not respond to reporters’ requests for an interview, instead providing prepared statements. “SB300 will make Florida a beacon of hope for those who understand that life is sacred and must be protected,” Grall said.

“I am honored that I will have the opportunity as a state senator to support the strongest pro-life legislation in more than 50 years,” Yarborough echoed. Gruters did not return reporters’ messages for comment.

The Senate bill also would expand the state’s alternatives-to-abortion program to include parenting support services and require an annual report to the governor and Legislature. Additionally, it would set aside $5 million toward the family planning program run by the state health department, which covers contraceptives.

During a Senate Health Policy Committee hearing Monday, Democratic lawmakers attempted to make the case for diverting the $25 million to other services. Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, proposed the money go to resources for domestic violence and sexual assault victims. “Let’s put these taxpayer dollars that are already in the bill where they will make a real difference,” she said.

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, called the proposed legislation an insult to women.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, called the proposed legislation an insult to women.

Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, proposed allocating the funds toward family planning services and telehealth services for a minority maternal care pilot program. “By passing this amendment, we can truly better guarantee that our constituents will have transparent, accountable, professional, licensed, tailored resources in their communities to make well-informed decisions,” she said. The amendments were ultimately rejected.

The program providing state funding for pregnancy centers in Florida began in 2004 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Since the program’s creation, the Florida Department of Health has contracted out oversight of the program to the Florida Pregnancy Care Network, an anti-abortion nonprofit in Tallahassee.

According to the care network’s state contract, centers are reimbursed for providing free pregnancy tests, tests for sexually transmitted infections and “counseling with a goal of childbirth.”

The program has come under scrutiny in recent years. A 2021 report by Floridians for Reproductive Freedom, a coalition advocating for access to reproductive healthcare like abortion and contraceptives, found that centers were providing clients with misleading materials about abortion. Some centers, for example, tell clients that abortion causes breast cancer — a claim widely disputed by medical research.

The state contract also requires the Florida Pregnancy Care Network to provide wellness services, such as medical screenings for cholesterol, blood pressure or diabetes. But the report notes that out of 56 subcontractors, only two were equipped to provide this type of medical care. Among those that do not are the pregnancy centers run by Heartbeat of Miami. Aside from offering ultrasounds, they refer women to outside clinics if they need additional care. Heartbeat President Martha Avila did not respond to the Miami Herald’s interview requests, instead sending a text message with a summary of center services.

“Four million a year was already way too much,” said Amy Weintraub, reproductive rights program director for the progressive nonprofit Progress Florida. “And then the idea that they’re adding $25 million on top of a nearly all-out abortion ban is beyond the pale. It is like they are looking to punish Floridians who want to have full bodily autonomy and want to have control over their own pregnancy decisions in every way possible.”

Florida Pregnancy Care Network Executive Director Rita Gagliano declined to comment and referred a reporter to the state health department. A spokesperson there said the agency does not comment on pending legislation. The network’s board members did not return reporters’ messages or declined to comment.

Among the care network’s subcontractors is the Archdiocese of Miami, which received nearly $650,000 between 2017 and 2021. It operates three centers, with the Fort Lauderdale center next door to an abortion clinic.

“By funding these pregnancy centers, we can provide women in crisis with alternatives that would ultimately be better for them and certainly much better for their unborn baby,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski said.

Angela Curatalo, director of the archdiocese’s Respect Life Ministry, which runs the pregnancy centers, said “the increased funding we would receive through the state would help us immensely support our programs.” She said her program would use the money for online parenting courses, supplies for those who are pregnant and new mothers, as well as administrative costs.

Women sometimes call the centers seeking to terminate a pregnancy, but staff there are clear that they do not offer or refer for abortions, Curatalo said. The centers offer counseling and free pregnancy tests, as well as ultrasounds that “show the mom that there is a baby,” she said. The centers then refer clients to medical providers for further care.

Not all centers are as forthcoming. In 2018, the state health department investigated a volunteer at a Jacksonville pregnancy center. The volunteer allegedly told patients heading to the abortion clinic across the road that their appointments were in her building. She performed ultrasounds on several women, providing them with inaccurate information about their pregnancies. The state issued a cease-and-desist notice against her for practicing medicine without a license, Reveal reported in December.

Book, the Democratic state senator, called the proposal “insulting to women on top of a six-week ban with a ridiculous rape and incest exemption.”

Nearly six years ago, Book and a friend visited a pregnancy center near the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee to better understand how they operate. They sat in a room staring at a glass diorama that showed the stages of fetal development. They also recalled a counselor who told them abortion was more traumatic than rape, a claim that infuriated Book, who is a survivor of child sexual abuse.

“This is an irresponsible way to utilize state funds,” Book said. “It is despicable that we have been funding these all along.”

Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau chief, contributed. This story was edited by Nina Martin, Casey Frank and Kate Howard and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@revealnews.org, and Clara-Sophia Daly can be reached at csdaly@miamiherald.com. Follow them on Twitter: @lauracmorel and @clarasophiadaly.