Abortion rights advocates launch fundraiser to benefit Orlando clinic fined by the state | Orlando Area News | Orlando

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Volunteer clinic escorts and clinic defense with Stand With Abortion Now outside an Orlando abortion clinic.

When news broke that one of Orlando’s only two abortion clinics had been hit with a steep $193,000 fine by a state agency for violating a Republican-backed waiting period law, local abortion right advocates didn’t just yell online about it — they strategized.

Within 48 hours, volunteers of Stand With Abortion Now, a group of clinic escorts who stand guard outside of the Center of Orlando for Women, launched a fundraiser to help the clinic cover the cost — with the clinic’s blessing.

It’s collected over $20,000 so far (and that figure is swiftly rising).

Graphic created by SWAN for a fundraiser to benefit a local abortion clinic facing a fine ordered by the state over a 24-hour waiting period law. - SWAN


Graphic created by SWAN for a fundraiser to benefit a local abortion clinic facing a fine ordered by the state over a 24-hour waiting period law.

“Our clinic is so important to this community and beyond,” Tanya, a SWAN volunteer, told Orlando Weekly . “SWAN exists to protect this clinic and the access to essential healthcare it provides to the Central Florida community and beyond.”

An attorney for the clinic previously wrote in a document filed with the state Division of Administrative Hearings that a $193,000 fine “would likely force the clinic into bankruptcy or closure.”

Here’s what happened

The abortion clinic — one of just two licensed abortion clinics in the sprawling city — was ordered by the state Agency for Health Care Administration on Monday to pay the fine over violations of a 2015 law.

That law, approved by a Republican majority in the state legislature, requires a person to have two appointments at least 24 hours apart to obtain an abortion in Florida. At least a dozen other states have similar laws on the books.

Florida’s law was blocked by the courts  for seven years through an injunction until last spring, when a Leon County Circuit Judge entered a final judgment upholding the law.

The Center of Orlando for Women, an independent abortion clinic, is accused of providing 193 abortions in violation of the law, from when it took effect April 25, 2022 through May 9, 2022 — when the center first implemented the 24-hour policy.

But Julie Gallagher, the clinic’s attorney, says the clinic wasn’t aware during that 10-day period that the law had taken effect, and that there were no clear guidelines provided by the agency.

Gallagher told Orlando Weekly the clinic had in fact contacted the state agency over a dozen times after seeing news of the April 8, 2022, ruling, to inquire when the new policy would take effect.

“We were very diligent in trying to find out the effective date of the change,” she said.

But, according to Gallagher, they were unable to get a firm answer from the agency.

As a result, the clinic administrator decided they’d take things into their own hands.

On May 5, 2022, she  directed clinic staff to implement the policy, effective May 9,  according to legal documents.

A representative of the AHCA conducted a visit to the clinic, unannounced, on May 11, to survey the clinic to ensure it was in compliance with applicable state laws and regulations.

On July 14, 2022, utilizing information gathered through that visit, the AHCA issued an administrative complaint, notifying the clinic that the agency planned to “discipline” the clinic for 193 alleged violations of the law within that 10-day period.

Under state statutes, the agency is able to fine the clinic up to $1,000 per violation.

In a recommendation filed by Gallagher in March of this year, Gallagher proposed the clinic pay $100 per violation, or $19,300 total.

“Respondent (the clinic) took necessary and reasonable steps to discover the effective date of 24-hour requirement so that it would be in compliance,” the document filed by Gallagher said.

“Short of being involved in the litigation (which it was not), there were not more options available to discover the effective date beyond what the clinic did,” she added. “Contacting AHCA (the Agency for Health Care Administration) for information (not legal advice) about the effective date of the 24-hour requirement was a logical and appropriate thing to do.”

An administrative judge in April 2023 didn’t go with Gallagher’s figure, but suggested a $67,500 total fine — $350 per violation — acknowledging in his recommended order that clinic staff “presented credible testimony regarding the extenuating and mitigating circumstances surrounding its violation.”

The AHCA, an unelected body, disagreed — and more than doubled that to the $193,000 fine issued in a final order on Monday.

Now the Orlando women’s clinic has 30 days from the date of the final order (Aug. 14) to pay the fee, or establish a payment plan with the agency.

Within that 30-day period, the clinic can also appeal to the District Court of Appeals and seek a stay of the final order so they don’t have to pay the fine right away.

“This is a really unfair situation,” said Gallagher, adding that the Orlando clinic has been treated much differently than other clinics throughout the state.

According to the News Service of Florida, other abortion clinics in Florida have also been fined over violations of the same waiting period law, but this fine is the steepest by far.

Orders filed by the agency in July share that it reached $20,000 settlements with two Miami-Dade County clinics.

Others have had their fees reduced, or have otherwise had their timeline for paying their fines extended, according to Gallagher.

“In some of these [cases], they cut them in half,” she said.

She can only speculate as to why this might be.

The Orlando clinic is Black-owned, operates in a majority-Democrat pocket of the state, and provides a high number of abortions.

They’re visited every day by anti-abortion protestors, at least one of whom has been out there nearly every week day for 20  years.

The clinic also has a troubled history, largely tracing back to the clinic’s founder and former owner James Pendergraft, a Black doctor who earned a reputation back in the day for providing late-term abortions when it was still legal.

“Abortion is a right for women,” he told Orlando Weekly in 1998. “It is something to be taken seriously. It is a constitutional right.”

Back in the 1990’s, he also reportedly handed out condoms at nightclubs advertising his clinic, and offered $50-off coupons for abortions performed on Sundays.

He was sued by a patient 10 years ago for medical malpractice (a case regularly propped up by anti-abortion activists), and made headlines in 2017 over drug possession charges out of state.

Pendergraft’s medical license in Florida has been suspended since 2013 and he no longer owns the clinic formerly dubbed the Orlando Women’s Center, which is currently licensed as the Center of Orlando for Women.

Today, it’s one of just two licensed abortion clinics in Orlando, located in a state that’s become a haven for abortion access since a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.

As of last July, Florida law currently allows abortion procedures up to 15 weeks of pregnancy, with few exceptions. A six-week limit was approved by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this spring, but whether it goes into effect is contingent upon the outcome of a lawsuit over the 15-week limit.

Other neighboring states have stricter limits, or have banned abortion outright, causing a spike in the number of people traveling into Florida from out of state to obtain an abortion.

Post-the overturn of Roe, dozens of abortion clinics nationwide have shuttered.

In Florida, 31 abortion clinics in Florida have either closed or had their licenses revoked since 2010, according to the AHCA.

Today, there are 51 licensed abortion sites, down from 71 in 2014.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion pregnancy centers, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, are cropping up, offering “choices” for pregnant people — but abortion in’t one of the choices.

Making an ‘example’ of the clinic

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a former Planned Parenthood staffer and Democrat who represents the Orlando area, told Orlando Weekly she supports SWAN’s fundraiser to benefit the clinic.

“This is an attempt to use administrative burden to close a clinic because of an unnecessary law that has been litigated for seven years, and does nothing to improve the health and safety of patients, abortion seekers,” said Eskamani, who’s aware of the clinic’s history.

Eskamani, a progressive State House representative who’s been re-elected twice since taking office in 2018, fought the 24-hour waiting period law herself at the state capitol in 2015, as a Planned Parenthood staffer at the time.

She believes the state is trying to make “an example” out of the Orlando clinic, pointing to the lower fines levied against other clinics in the state.

“For other clinics, it was not that egregious,” she said. “It’s important for us as Orlandoans to make an example to AHCA by standing up and supporting our abortion providers.”

SWAN, the clinic escort group that launched the fundraiser for the abortion clinic, agrees.

“If the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration is able to “regulate” any healthcare provider they just don’t like out of existence, the same tactic can and will be deployed against other providers both inside and outside of this state,” said Tanya, in a statement provided on behalf of her organization.

Fining the clinic this way, she said, is an “unacceptable abuse of state power” and “completely devoid of any meaningful concern for patient safety.”

Gallagher, the clinic’s attorney, said the fundraiser is an “excellent idea.”

Drumming up support

Rep. Eskamani and former state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (who lost his bid for reelection last year, but is currently running for State Senate) have already shared social media posts promoting the fundraiser.

So has feminist writer Jessica Valenti, a longtime fan of SWAN, which describes itself as explicitly anti-fascist and class-conscious.

They’re most well-known for their popular TikTok account.

The group told Orlando Weekly if the Orlando abortion clinic does appeal the state’s final order, and is granted a stay, any and all funds received will go toward supporting abortion access.

“If a stay or appeal is granted in this case, as it should be, any funds raised will go directly to supporting patients in need of funds for their abortion care, supplies and equipment for clinic escorting and defense, and advocacy for the clinic, our patients, and our community,” they shared in a statement.

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