A new state law that provides taxpayer dollars to a network of so-called women’s “crisis pregnancy centers” is raising questions about whether the state will monitor how the centers – which don’t offer medical services, birth control, sex education, or abortions – deal with women who go there seeking help.
According to the law that went into effect July 1, the state-funded, not-for-profit alliance of “pregnancy support organizations” offer “services that promote and encourage childbirth.” The network gets $4 million in this year’s state budget.
Advocates for women’s health call them “fake clinics,” and are demanding more oversight from the state Department of Health to ensure that the publicly-funded centers aren’t pushing a religious agenda or shaming women into making decisions about their bodies.
“They lure women in because of the promise of a free pregnancy test,” says Amy Weintraub, reproductive rights program director for the group Progress Florida, charging: “And they use misinformation and outright lies to do that, and that’s the problem.”
One crisis pregnancy center official says his publicly-funded facility is careful not to give out religious or medical advice. He told the Phoenix that the state gives his center $60 per hour to work with women. The center gets tax money to provide a single pregnancy test for a woman who comes in for help. If she is pregnant, then the center can continue to work with her until her child is 1 year old and bill taxpayers $60 per hour for every hour they work with her. If the woman is not pregnant, then the clinic can only bill the state for the time spent on the first pregnancy test.
The law requires that the crisis pregnancy centers provide information in a “noncoercive manner,” not include religious content, and also provide research references if they give women any medical information. Weintraub said she hasn’t seen any evidence that the state Department of Health has a plan to police those requirements on behalf of taxpayers.
One 20-year-old woman told the Phoenix that when she went into a crisis pregnancy center when she was 16, a staffer wearing crucifix earrings threatened to notify her school and parents, told her she “was a sinner for having pre-marital sex, but with their help I could be saved” and that “birth control kills you, causes infertility, and causes cancer.”
Weintraub and other pro-choice advocates carried a stack of petitions to the state Capitol this summer, demanding more oversight from the state health department. She said the centers are “not a new phenomenon, but the fact that they’re going for public money is relatively new.”
She said she views the centers as the “local headquarters for the anti-abortion movement.”
“That’s significant because that means the pro-life folks have their feelers out,” she said. “We’ve always known that, but to see these formal institutions set up, that’s alarming; and then to see they’re getting government funding (is even more so).”
Anyone looking for a crisis pregnancy center can find one through the Florida Department of Health. There are three centers on the interactive map in Tallahassee, one near Orlando, three in Gainesville, four clustered in Jacksonville, nine around Miami. Weintraub said she has found roughly 105 centers around the state that she believes are “in-network” – meaning they get dedicated state funding.
How a pregnancy crisis center works
Ryan Sprague, CEO of a Tallahassee crisis pregnancy center the Department of Health’s network, said government funding for centers like his is not entirely new, but the new law provides a steadier source of tax dollars.
Before the law, he said, every year state funding “might be there (or) it might not be – just based on given resources.” All that the new law did, he said, “is codified it.”
Sprague, 40, has been the CEO of the Tallahassee center for roughly five years. He said he could not speak for all the centers within the state network but said the center he oversees provides information only about pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care.
“We certainly do not refer for – or provide – abortions,” Sprague said, adding that his centers “educate” women who come for help, and advise women who want information about alternatives to look elsewhere.
Sprague said his clinic’s approach is to give women (and men) who enter the facility brochures on topics like STD testing and birth control, but the facility is tailored only toward assisting women who carry their pregnancies to term – and providing support afterward.
He said the clinic comes up with a proposal at the beginning of the fiscal year about how many hours it will operate, and then the center is audited quarterly and annually. State funding is also based on voluntary surveys that people who come to the center fill out about their experiences, answering questions about how they were greeted at the door, whether they were seen in a timely manner, and whether religious content was included in the information provided.
“Our kind of approach is we want to give the young women coming to us – and the young men – the best information we can,” Sprague said. “We realize there is nothing we can do to coerce someone into making a choice.”
The center does not offer more information on sex education, but Sprague said the center encourages people to do their own research. For pregnancy information, the center offers “hundreds of classes,” Sprague said, on topics like what happens in the three trimesters of a pregnancy, infant care, delivery, breastfeeding, networking in the community and more.
According to the Department of Health guidelines, the in-network centers that get taxpayer money are allowed to “provide information on abortion education, information on alternatives to abortion, education and training, adoption information, counseling, and medical resource referrals.”
The contractor handling the state’s funds for the centers said it will work with the Department of Health to make sure the centers comply.
At Sprague’s center in Tallahassee, there’s one full-time registered nurse and a medical director who also works as a physician at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The medical director is available to consult for the registered nurse on ultrasounds and other procedures, but Sprague said the clinic does not advertise itself as a medical facility. Sprague’s center does provide ultrasounds.
“Even our nurse will refrain from giving medical advice because that’s out of our jurisdiction,” he said.
He said the center offers “a lot of education – what’s going on with their body, their baby, how to advocate for themselves,” and that people who want more information can track it down elsewhere.
Not what it seemed
Annie Filkowski was 16 when she walked into a crisis pregnancy across the street from a Florida Planned Parenthood clinic in 2015.
“Honestly, I thought it was a bootleg Planned Parenthood,” the now-20-year-old said.
She needed to take a pregnancy test. She said she had passed the clinic every day on the way to school and that it advertised a free pregnancy test. One day, she and a friend walked in.
“When we got there, we got a weird feeling from the start,” she said. “My friend suggested not to put down all my medical information.”
The girls gave fake names – Filkowski put down her first name and her friend’s last name. She did not fill out the question asking her where she went to school.
“The woman at the front desk was wearing crucifix earrings and spoke to me in the most patronizing tone,” Filkowski said. “I mean, I was 16, but I was pretty ‘with it’ when I was 16 and I could speak to adults.”
The earrings were important in retrospect, Filkowski said, because of how the rest of the examination went: She said the orderlies did not let her friend go with her into the back rooms, a woman asked her “every detail of my relationship with a guy at the time,” and “she basically told me I was a sinner for having pre-marital sex, but with their help I could be saved.”
Filkowski said that while she waited for the results of a urine test, the woman “grilled me about my religion” and asked how Filkowski’s Catholic parents would feel if the urine test came back positive.
Filkowski said she wanted to leave but waited to see the urine test results. She said she asked for birth control information. Filkowski said the woman told her: “Birth control kills you, causes infertility, and causes cancer.”
The urine test came back negative.
“The absolute worst part for me was when she gave the results back and we wrapped up: she told me ‘I will be notifying your parents and your school,’” Filkowski said. “The biggest blow to me was that I kind of did trust this woman. I don’t know why, but I did trust her.”
Filkowski and her friend left the center and walked across the street to Planned Parenthood, where Filkowski broke down about her experience in the center.
Filkowski now majors in political science and constitutional law at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. She has testified before the Florida House and the Senate about the crisis pregnancy centers.
“Someone needs to be out there screaming ‘I went to a crisis pregnancy center and this is what happened,’” she said.
Weintraub said the network of centers has “a right to exist because of free speech, but they are still problematic because of their tactics.”
Pro-choice advocates plan more protests
For Judy Gallizzi, a 74-year-old activist in St. Petersburg, Fl, the new law is unacceptable.
Gallizzi remembers the times when women didn’t have access to safe, legal abortions – before the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court. Faced with an unwanted pregnancy in 1966, she got a risky, illegal abortion. She said she never questioned her decision because she wasn’t ready for the responsibilities of having a child, and worried that a pregnancy would get her fired from her job in an office which had about 70 men and just two women.
“It was a very scary thing to do…but also the fear of being found out,” she said. “We’re so lucky now – I mean there’s still a social stigma attached to having an abortion now – but it’s so much less. It was illegal! You could end up being called into court.”
Now retired, Gallizzi takes to the streets in Tampa and St. Petersburg to advocate for women’s rights. She puts on a long red dress and dons a sweeping white bonnet to become a “handmaid” from Margaret Atwood’s novel (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and stands on the sidewalk in front of the local crisis pregnancy centers to remind people of what’s at stake.
“Our push is to get the health department to actually go in and oversee (the centers),” Gallizzi said. “Somebody needs to be out there pushing the health department to do that.”