The Back Alley

Choosing Sides

The abortion clinic debate that tore apart Florida’s pro-choice coalition.

On March 5, 1990, in the wake of a legislative battle that had riveted the nation, a select committee of the Florida Senate released a draft bill to regulate abortion clinics. The bill, based on months of study after the discovery of several bad clinics, was quite modest. As part of their annual license renewal, abortion providers would have to submit the names of their doctors to the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. In turn, HRS would have to verify with Florida’s Department of Professional Regulation that each doctor was licensed. To prevent harassment, anyone who leaked a doctor’s name would be fired and charged with a first-degree misdemeanor. In fairness, and to close a loophole, the same rules would apply to any private doctor’s office whose business was mostly abortions. Sen. Mary Grizzle, the committee’s chairwoman and the bill’s sponsor, wanted simple sanitation standards but agreed to propose none until federal judge Jose Gonzalez, Jr., relaxed a 1982 injunction that precluded them.

Assuming the bill didn’t pick up any sneaky amendments, it seemed harmless to Planned Parenthood’s Florida affiliates and their lobbyist, Carolyn Pardue. They trusted Grizzle, and the standards she wanted were paltry compared to theirs. A round of phone calls to the affiliates yielded general agreement to go along. Voice for Choice, an umbrella organization allied with Pardue, pledged that it would “not oppose” the bill. The state federation of Business and Professional Women concurred:

NARAL sign

“[A]ppropriate and reasonable standards for abortion clinics are in the best interests of the women who use them. [The bill] does not, in our opinion, restrict access to abortion services. Furthermore, we wished to demonstrate our support for appropriate standards in the face of the frequent perception that the pro-choice community automatically opposes all forms of regulation.”

The rest of the pro-choice lobby—Florida NOW, the ACLU, the Florida Abortion Rights Action League, and Protectors of Women’s Abortion Rights, which represented 34 Florida clinics—refused. They dismissed as persecution any crackdown aimed only at abortion providers. They saw no proof that the unsavory conditions exposed in several clinics the previous fall had caused any injuries. At bottom, they believed that no law could be a good law.

Planned Parenthood signs

Soon after the release of the draft bill, Pardue and Charlene Carres, the lawyer and lobbyist for POWAR and the Florida ACLU, met for lunch near the capitol. Pardue served notice that the Planned Parenthood affiliates wouldn’t oppose Grizzle’s bill. She wanted to know whether Carres could stomach it. The answer was no. Not that the proposed changes were burdensome. Carres would later admit that they were “very slim” and posed no “big problem as far as privacy rights.” But Carres said the bill was still unconstitutional, since it treated abortion differently from comparable procedures in doctors’ offices.

Personal quandaries complicated the arguments on both sides. Beyond her steadfast support for birth control and abortion rights, Mary Grizzle held a key committee vote on nursing issues. Pardue, who also represented the Florida Nurses Association, didn’t want to cross her. Carres had other concerns. The state had just asked Judge Gonzalez to relax his injunction, and the clinic involved in that case had retained Carres to block the motion. It would be politically if not ethically awkward for her to endorse a regulation bill at the same time. Furthermore, if Grizzle’s bill triggered another round of court battles, it was Carres and her clients, not Pardue, who would have to defend the judicial Maginot line drawn by Gonzalez.

The exchange was polite, but neither woman backed down. Carres stared across the table at a woman unwilling to persevere in the war against the state. Pardue stared back at a woman unwilling to transcend it.

On May 2, the schism went public. A swarm of abortion rights advocates gathered  to watch the Senate Health Care Committee vote on the bill. Pardue and two other witnesses, representing Planned Parenthood, the Florida Nurses Association, and the Florida Coalition for Choice, endorsed the bill. Carres and several others, representing FARAL, Florida NOW, the Florida ACLU, POWAR, and the Florida Abortion Council, testified against it. So did four clinic operators. Carres warned the committee that any legislative action, no matter how small, might jeopardize abortion rights. “To tamper with the law now, even in terms of wording, is to risk changing things,” she protested.

The bill survived the committee vote. Its opponents were furious. They excoriated the pro-choicers who had supported it. Abortion providers made angry phone calls to Planned Parenthood clinics. One provider dismissed a Planned Parenthood officer from his volunteer post as an abortion patient escort, and didn’t back off until the officer threatened to stop referring women to the clinic. FARAL quit the Coalition for Choice, outraged that the Coalition’s lobbyist, paid for in part with FARAL’s money, had testified for a bill that FARAL opposed.

In a newsletter two days after the hearing, Pardue fired back:

“The groups supporting the bill are not abortion providers—they do, however, represent women who have worked long and hard to insure access to safe and legal services. They are committed to insuring that women referred to clinics have the best assurance they can that the state and clinics have worked together to provide safe environments and safe physicians. These groups realized that, under current enforcement procedures, they cannot have confidence that the clinics are meeting uniform standards that insure safety.”

Grizzle was mystified by the opposition. She feared for every woman in South Florida who opened the Yellow Pages to find an abortion clinic. To her, the issue wasn’t choice; it was safety. And hadn’t the political war of the last year proved the dominance of the abortion rights lobby? She saw no need to be so defensive. But the clinic operators and their allies refused to take chances. “Once you compromise, they chip away at everything, and you’re compromising women’s lives,” NOW’s lobbyist argued.

Grizzle’s bill passed the Senate  on May 31. From there it went to the House, where Elaine Gordon, the chairwoman of the House Health Care Committee, pronounced it dead on arrival. “I just think it will have a chilling effect on doctors’ willingness to perform abortions,” said Gordon. Grizzle was skeptical. “I think she has some constituents who are against the bill,” the senator grumbled, alluding to the South Florida clinics. “My gut feeling is that they don’t want to be cleaned up.”

At a hearing in Fort Lauderdale two weeks later, an attorney for the state issued a final plea to Judge Gonzalez. Opposite the state’s lawyer stood Charlene Carres, backed by two dozen clinics and the ACLU. Carres said the state had “not presented one shred of evidence showing that any clinics are dangerous.” In a terse order issued six weeks later, Gonzalez threw out the state’s request. “What I think this means,” said Carres, triumphantly, “is that nothing will be changed, ever.”

For the most part, she was right. It took Florida 15 years to enact new clinic regulations, and those regulations apply only after the first trimester. For 90 percent of the state’s abortions, nothing has changed. Arguably, Carres was right about the clinics, too: In the last two decades, Florida hasn’t seen a hurricane of abortion safety problems like the one that hit the state in 1989-90. Nor has the rest of the country. But there have been lesser storms along the way. And now there’s Kermit Gosnell.

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