Cecile Richards speaks at the launch of the new Tallahassee clinic. Photo by Mitch Perry.
The facility isn’t easy to find, and you won’t see signs on the building that have anything to do with reproductive services or really anything about health care at all.
It’s intentionally nondescript, with the entrance turned away from the street for safety reasons. There’s a vestibule made from bulletproof glass.
The building in Tallahassee is a new Planned Parenthood health center that will provide preventive care, contraception and sexually transmitted disease testing. It expects to provide abortion services around 2019 — the first time ever that the organization will provide those services in the state capital.
A crowd of about 100 people, including donors, locally elected officials and supporters participated at the opening last week and a Florida Phoenix reporter was provided a tour of the clinic that opened on Tennessee Street.
“This is the kind of health care facility that everyone in this country deserves,” said Cecile Richards, the longtime head of Planned Parenthood who stepped down in April after 12 years at the helm of the national organization. Richards made the trek to the state capital for the ribbon cutting ceremony.
The event comes at an unsettling time for pro-choice advocates, with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announcing his retirement and a new conservative justice likely to come on the bench. The upcoming transition is already raising concerns about the possibility of the high court overturning the hallmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion.
The issue has been controversial ever since, including in Florida.
The Panhandle was the site of two murders of abortion providers in Pensacola in the early 1990s: Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed during an anti-abortion protest in 1993. A year later, inspired by Gunn’s killing, anti-abortion protestor Paul J. Hill shot and killed Dr. John Bayard Britton and a clinic volunteer named James H. Barrett.
For years, anti-abortion groups have worked to restrict the access that American women have to legal abortions. In 2013, Texas lawmakers passed legislation that required all health clinics performing abortions to spend money to upgrade their facilities to “ambulatory surgical centers.” While anti-abortion legislators say it was about making abortion safer, pro-choice advocates argued that was never the case and that the GOP-led bill was a measure designed to reduce the number of abortion providers in the Lone Star State by adding expensive and unnecessary regulations. Abortion providers have been performing the procedure safely for decades in clinics without the more strict surgical standards.
Anti-abortion activists and lawmakers tried to pass a similar law in the Florida Legislature in 2016 but the measure failed. The Texas law was ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court that same year. Nevertheless, Planned Parenthood officials want to be sure that all of the new facilities they are building in the southern U.S. aren’t vulnerable to those same tactics.
At the new Planned Parenthood health center in Tallahassee, there are three exam rooms, as well as education rooms, where teens and others who have general questions about birth control or other related health concerns can discuss their issues with personnel in a safe environment.
To build a facility that meets ambulatory surgical center standards, “The hallways have to be a certain size. You have to have surgical grade equipment. Even the A/C units have to be surgical grade,” explains Christina Nocce, communications director for Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida.
“To plan ahead, we decided to retrofit this new metro health center to meet those guidelines,” Nocce added.
Although having the ability to provide abortions is critical in Florida’s capital, Planned Parenthood officials say that the main objective in building the new facility was the ability to serve more people in Tallahassee, perpetually a medically underserved community. Women who need an abortion in the capital city currently have few options: They can go to a single stand-alone clinic, a private doctor or make a 330-mile round trip to the closest Planned Parenthood clinic in Jacksonville.
With 70,000 college students residing in Tallahassee for nine months out of the year, Planned Parenthood officials say that their services to educate and provide care are more needed than ever.
The rate of sexually transmitted infections in Leon County, which encompasses Tallahassee, has been increasing over the last few years and the county currently has the highest rate of chlamydia cases, according to 2018 county health rankings from a national analysis.
The current Planned Parenthood facility in Tallahassee serves approximately 1,600 patients annually, while the new clinic will be able to handle four times as many.
“The goal has been all along to make sure that we focus on assuring that we have reproductive health equity across this country,” said Lillian Tamayo, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood for South, East, and North Florida. “Florida is one of the most underserved areas in the states, but the south in general just faces enormous disparities in contrast to other parts of the country.”
Former Planned Parenthood national head Richards said that opening new clinics in the south was one of the most important parts of the work she did at the organization.
“I’m just an average citizen (now,) but I’m so honored that I get to come to Tallahassee,” she said at the clinic opening.
Polls show that Planned Parenthood has popular support nationwide.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released in March showed that 52 percent of the public approves of the group.
Similarly, a Fox News survey done by Anderson Robbins Research and Shaw and Company Research showed that 58 percent of the public looked at the group favorably, and 34 percent unfavorably.
“People who come to us for health care aren’t coming to us to make a political statement,” Richards told The Florida Phoenix.
Planned Parenthood remains controversial, however. The group came under fire from critics during Richards’ tenure, particularly in 2015, when undercover videos surfaced accusing some of their doctors of selling fetal tissue for profit – which turned out not to be true.
While the organization said it never has and never should sell fetal tissue, it apologized for remarks made by some doctors captured in the videos. The organization did allow some patients to donate tissue, if they wished, for medical research. It also restricted its affiliated clinics from accepting reimbursement for the cost of making fetal tissue available to researchers. The imbroglio prompted Governor Rick Scott – an abortion opponent – to call for an investigation into Florida’s 16 Planned Parenthood offices that performed abortions.
Weeks later, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration released a report stating that clinics in St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and Naples were performing second-trimester abortions when they were only licensed to perform first-trimester abortions.
Planned Parenthood responded by releasing a statement saying the licensing violations resulted from the Agency for Health Care Administration changing its definitions and that the centers were operating in compliance with Florida law – a stance later upheld by a federal court.
Officials at last week’s opening also cited the importance of the location in the
Panhandle for residents needing an abortion who live in nearby deep south states that require at least 24 hours before getting an abortion. Florida lawmakers passed a similar 24-hour waiting period measure in 2015, but it was struck down as unconstitutional by several courts within the state.
“You may not realize that Florida is the last of the southern states that does not have a waiting period prior to having an abortion,” said Tamayo. “So women will travel over the state line and we’re just pleased to be able to be here for them.”
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