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2/26/2009

News

Immaculate deception
Why Florida's crisis pregnancy centers retain their funding while the rest of the state budget crumbles

 

For a minute it seemed like something had finally given. State budget cuts of $1.2 billion engendered spirited debate among legislators during January’s special session as to what could be cut from the Department of Health’s budget. After a recent history of the Republican majority trying to insert anti-abortion clauses into the most obscure of bills, there it was: the rare taste of victory for pro-choice Democrats.

During last April’s budget session, state reps Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, and Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, suggested to the House Healthcare Council that the annual $2 million to fund the Florida Pregnancy Support Services Program – used to support a hotline and marketing for Florida “pregnancy crisis centers” – could be cut. That didn’t happen. Then the Senate’s proposed budget came back with $1.8 million shaved from the program during the special session. In the end, the Legislature settled on pulling $574,728 from the program.

It was a done deal, one that would probably shut the program down altogether.

But freshman state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, had other ideas. He, along with some of his Republican peers, set out on a mission to convince Gov. Charlie Crist of the program’s importance to Florida parents in trouble, even while the budget crumbled. Plakon is a founding board member of his own, year-old Winter Park crisis pregnancy center, A Safe Harbor, and although his center is not currently receiving state funding, he lobbed a political Hail Mary to save the program for those that were. It worked. On Jan. 27, the governor vetoed the line item and the crisis for the pregnancy centers was averted.

“This is unusual for this to happen this way,” he told Charisma Magazine at the time. “I appreciate the effort and support that chairman Dean Cannon [R-Winter Park] and so many other House leaders put forth in making sure that innocent human life was protected in Florida.”

Plakon is hailed as a hero by his peers. But for those on the other side of the aisle, the veto and the maneuvering behind it are signs of more muddying of the line between church and state.

The Florida Pregnancy Support Services Program was introduced by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005 to increase visibility for the state’s non-abortion counseling options and stem its rising abortion rate. The $4 million launch established a toll-free hotline – 1-866-673-HOPE – to point pregnant women in the direction of their nearest non-abortion, nonprofit option, and also provide grants to those organizations for counseling, prenatal support and adoption. The money is only available to organizations that make no mention at all of abortion. It can go to religious organizations, and it supplements the $800,000 the centers receive yearly from the state’s “Choose Life” license plates and whatever federal funds come in.

Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings raised the rallying call when she spoke to the Florida Baptist Witness in March of 2005. “We’re way outnumbered and we don’t need to be,” she said. “There’s lots of information about other alternatives. I think there needs to be equal information about how to take a pregnancy to term.”

According to Department of Health documents, the program only paid out $2.3 million in its first year, $757,000 less than it had contracted. About $1.5 million of that was given to the Florida Pregnancy Care Network to staff the hotline’s call center and purchase Yellow Pages ads. An additional $746,000 went to the Uzzell Group Inc. in Tallahassee to build a website and “provide media services” for the program.

The most recent figures show the program spending nearly $1 million between July and December of 2008. In its first year, FPSSP claims to have served 24,169 clients, while registering only 5,912 phone calls. Since its March 2006 inception, the program has reportedly provided services about 174,294 times (plus the “not collected” figures on the first year), while the website (www.floridapregnancysupport.com) has registered 6,500 hits. FPCN, one of the two distributing agencies, lists $649,011 in “direct counseling” on its 2007 tax documents, although the program claims that neither FPCN or Uzzell provide direct services to clients.

It doesn’t necessarily add up.

“The thing that bothers me about it is that it was a volunteer system, and it was perfectly fine as a volunteer program, and whatever churches wanted to do with the funds that they got from their congregation was perfectly up to them,” says state Rep. Skidmore. “The problem I have with it is that this is not public health. This is not an appropriate use of taxpayers’ dollars. … Why spend $20 million over 10 years to have a hotline for pregnant women who want to keep their babies to call? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

In some cases, the state affiliation of a crisis pregnancy center can lend an air of validation. Nancy McDonald, who runs five centers in South Florida, told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a subtle thing, but people seem to think that when you’re affiliated with the state, you must be good.”

The Beta Center on Lake Underhill Road, which receives state funds, aims “to provide children and parents with the knowledge and support needed for strong healthy families,” and steers clear of the anti-abortion rhetoric on its website. Its executive committee reads like a who’s who of Orlando notables: Tico Perez, Central Florida News 13’s Jackie Brockington, executives from Disney and Universal. But it’s also the home of the “Abstinence Til Marriage” after-school program, and offers no counseling on abortion.

“Beta is really about good decision-making,” says Beta Center president and CEO Hope Kramer. “We are an abortion alternative, we don’t promote abortions. We feel really strongly that whatever side you’re on as far as the whole political thing goes, it’s really about our young girls who have decided to keep their babies.”

Beta is a crisis pregnancy center, as well as a school and home for teenage mothers. It focuses on abstinence education, but is not a medical facility. Its counselors provide guidance without any religious affiliation.

“We talk about abstinence because we really come from kind of a different direction. We don’t come at them preaching, or telling them what they have to do. We try to get them to see their bodies as more valuable,” says Kramer. “We do teach abstinence, but if you focus just on abstinence you end up turning a lot of kids away. There is a good way to do this without proselytizing or scaring them.”

The Beta Center lists nearly $700,000 in government grants on its 2006 tax form, along with $1.7 million in direct and indirect public support. They receive about $30,000 a year from FPSSP. Orange County Public Schools paid them $23,507 in 2006 to take in their pregnant students who chose to complete their studies while getting prenatal care at the center. Through the state Department of Education 4C program, the school receives about $250,000 yearly, says Kramer, which helps offset the $650,000 operating costs. They serve about 250 girls a year. (OCPS spokeswoman Kathy Marsh notes that Orange County schools do require full sex education.)

But the focus isn’t always so obvious at the FPSSP-supported crisis pregnancy centers. At the Care Net centers in Stuart and Port St. Lucie, the tone is more controversial. Their website carries a section called “abortion risks” that kicks off with the statement, “Abortion isn’t necessarily as ‘safe and easy’ as many make it out to be,” before bullet-pointing a laundry list of risks, some of which long since proven untrue: breast cancer, ectopic pregnancies, infertility and psychological trauma among them. It’s that kind of scare tactic, and the funding of it while other actual health concerns are cut, that troubles Skidmore.

“I don’t begrudge anybody their opinion and their ability to advocate for that opinion, but why should my taxpayer dollars go to fund it? I don’t want to pay for it,” she says.

l l l

Crisis Pregnancy Centers began popping up nationally in the wake of Roe v. Wade. Since then, according to 2006 estimates, there are anywhere from 2,300 to 3,500 CPCs, versus about 1,800 abortion clinics in the United States. In 2006, The Washington Post reported that CPCs had received more than $60 million in federal funding, a number that accelerated quickly after the election of President George W. Bush and his public pronouncements on abstinence and adoption.

In 2004, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, issued an investigative report on 25 federally funded CPCs in which female investigators from the Special Investigation Division pretended to be pregnant 17-year-olds who could not visit an office but wanted as much advice over the phone as they could get. Eighty-seven percent of the centers “provided false or misleading information to the callers,” according to the report. A frequently cited 2002 “fact” from the National Cancer Institute website – that breast cancer was a likely health risk following an abortion – was actually the result of the Bush administration’s revisionism. In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine reported no relation between breast cancer and abortion in 1997. On Waxman’s protestations, the “fact” was reviewed by the NCI and changed. Effects on fertility and mental health were similarly shot down.

“This tactic may be effective in frightening pregnant teenagers and women and discouraging abortion,” the report concluded, “but it denies the teenagers and women vital health information, prevents them from making an informed decision and is not an accepted public health practice.”

The Orlando Weekly conducted its own investigation in 2003 (“Choose lies,” April 17) in which the writer, Deb Berry, sneaked a pregnant friend’s urine samples into several local CPCs, only to find the same high-pressure threats of health concerns in person. She told counselors she was a drug addict and concerned about the effects on the fetus, but was told, “Babies have a way of protecting themselves from their mother’s bad habits.”

It’s this kind of misinformation that has Planned Parenthood on the offense. “A lot of [the CPCs] advertise under the section in the Yellow Pages under abortion,” says Jenna Cawley, education director for Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando. “So a lot of women call them actually believing that they’re calling a reputable clinic where they’re going to be able to get medical, unbiased information about pregnancy options.”

Instead, they get coercion.

Planned Parenthood does not receive any direct public funding locally. Some of its 97 affiliates do receive grants under the federal Title X program (about one-third of their $1 billion budget) meant to assist Planned Parenthood in helping women plan pregnancies, prevent sexually transmitted diseases and detect breast and cervical cancer, forming cooperative agreements with the Centers for Disease Control. They advocate contraception and provide abortions at some of their clinics. But despite popular misconception, those procedures are not funded by the government and make up just 3 percent of the health services Planned Parenthood delivers; they performed 305,310 abortions in 2007.

The rest of the money they receive comes from private donations and contract services rendered. Cawley, along with other local representatives, including the Beta Center, worked directly with Orange County Public Schools in hammering out their sex education program three years ago, a program that avoids the topics of homosexuality and abortion – but does feature information about birth control, HIV and other STDs when students ask – and centers on abstinence and parenting. It’s as “vendors” that they make most of their money. PPGO reported $1.7 million in program service revenue in 2007, along with $600,000 in direct public support.

In Planned Parenthood’s view, the government funding of CPCs is counterproductive. They claim, based on Florida Department of Health figures, that for every $1 spent on the family services they offer, there’s a savings of $24 on services required in bringing an unwanted pregnancy to term in the state. The millions spent on proselytizing could be better spent on education and family planning.

“My opinion, and this is just sort of at a gut level, is that this is the kind of political decision that helps certain politicians maintain a base,” says Skidmore.

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A Safe Harbor is a meager storefront in a Lee Road strip mall. The front windows block out the light through a combination of slapped-shut wood blinds and gathered brown curtains. It looks safe, but hardly inviting.

The crisis pregnancy center’s executive director, Theresa Morgan, explains that the organization has two paid employees, plus a small corps of volunteers. They opened in January 2007, she says, and are experiencing the tough times well known by most nonprofits trying to get along in a recession.

Something that sets A Safe Harbor apart is the unique concept of a “Mommy and Me Boutique,” which Morgan explains is an outgrowth of their educational parenting program. “As girls go through the parenting program, they use points they accrue to buy maternity clothes,” she says.

They’ve helped about 100 people in a year’s time and are hoping for an ultrasound machine – a device often used by CPCs to convince women to keep their babies – but it hasn’t happened yet. They are specifically Christian and are affiliated with the national Option Line, an 800 number jointly operated by two faith-based CPC regulars, Care Net and Heartbeat International. The two groups received a combined $5 million in private donations in 2006, according to tax records. A Safe Harbor, being so newly christened, has yet to have any tax records appear. Their website features the regular abortion scares: breast cancer, psychological trauma, death.

This is Scott Plakon’s place.

“My mom was 17, pregnant and scared in 1959,” he says on the phone, walking back from the capitol to his Tallahassee apartment. “She was single and had the people who were close to her try to persuade her to end my life.”

Since then, he and his wife have had five children and adopted one. “I like to believe that my life has counted for something and made a difference,” he says.

Plakon is fast becoming a darling of his party in Tallahassee. He’s just been on the phone with FPSSP architect Jeb Bush, he was able to get a meeting with Crist through a business lobbyist and push the veto, he’s rubbing elbows with state Rep. Dean Cannon and the man who held his seat before him, David Simmons, recently told him he could change the world.

For Plakon, the crisis pregnancy centers are all about “nudging” women “in the direction towards choosing life and adoption.”

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “In pregnancy centers – and I’ve met a number of people who do this, they do it because they believe like I do that life begins at conception – the people at pregnancy centers, they really have a passion for this.”

That passion, he says, carries over to his legislative peers, who he reckons are “not an insignificant number” and will be the last to let a state program that “nudges people in the direction of life and adoption die.”

Besides, what’s $2 million in the context of a $60 billion budget? Also, Crist is a proponent of adoption, so Plakon’s looking for new ways to grow adoptions in Florida – just not gay adoption. “I think the best way for a child to grow up is with a father and a mother, because they both bring a different type of interaction for a child,” he says. “You know how a man will throw his baby up in the air? That’s kind of a man thing. A mother can sit there and stare in a baby’s eyes for five minutes, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got things to do!’”

As of now, A Safe Harbor, exists outside of the FPSSP funding shell game. Of course, that could change. “With A Safe Harbor, I’ve pretty much told them I’ll see you in May [after the session],” he says. “I think we briefly talked about the program last year, but if I’m not mistaken, there was a cap. I sent them an e-mail -– because I’m missing the board meeting this week – that we should be considering this [funding] program.”

As should everyone in Florida.

bmanes@orlandoweekly.com
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