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Battle Over Abortion Clinics Heats Up

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Lottie Watts
The Florida Channel
The St. Petersburg Planned Parenthood Clinic was cited in a state inspection.

A fight between Planned Parenthood and Gov. Rick Scott's administration escalated on Wednesday, with state health officials saying three clinics can continue to operate but remain under investigation for allegedly performing illegal second-trimester abortions.

Amid news reports that the Agency for Health Care Administration had backed down after being sued by the clinics, the agency released a letter from its top lawyer saying that the clinics were still under investigation and had broken the law.

"Your client, Planned Parenthood, continues to misrepresent to the media that AHCA has changed its position, and Planned Parenthood clinics in Florida may now provide unauthorized second trimester abortions. This is false," AHCA General Counsel Stuart Williams wrote to the clinics' lawyer, Julie Gallagher, on Wednesday.

Based on information provided by the clinics to health officials, "abortions were illegally performed during the second trimester at the three clinics at issue, and our investigation will continue," Williams wrote. "Please advise your client to govern itself accordingly."

The agency released Williams' letter hours after Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, announced the clinics were dropping a lawsuit, filed earlier in the week, after receiving a letter Tuesday from Williams that Planned Parenthood said supported its position.

Responding to Williams' Wednesday missive, Gallagher, the clinics' lawyer, denied that the abortion providers had done anything wrong.

"We absolutely did not report any illegal procedures. AHCA has changed its position on what procedures are included in the first trimester as evidenced by their own documents," Gallagher, a Tallahassee attorney with the Grossman, Furlow & Bayo firm said in a statement.

AHCA accused three Planned Parenthood clinics in Naples, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers last week of unlawfully performing second-trimester abortions while the clinics are licensed only to perform first-trimester procedures.

The agency targeted the clinics after Scott last month ordered health officials to investigate 16 Planned Parenthood clinics in the wake of a national firestorm over a series of undercover videos by the pro-life group Center for Medical Progress. The secretly taped footage included a senior Planned Parenthood doctor discussing the procurement and sale of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses.

In citing the three Florida clinics, the agency's investigators relied on a rule defining the second trimester as "the portion of a pregnancy following the 12th week and extending through the 24th week of gestation." Agency documents showed that some abortions at the clinics were performed after the 12th week but before the 14th week.

But, in the lawsuit filed Monday, Gallagher pointed to a nearly-decade old agency rule that allows first-trimester abortions during the 14 weeks after a woman's last normal menstrual period. The lawsuit sought an emergency injunction and a declaratory statement to clarify whether the clinics could continue to operate.

"Plaintiff and its physicians and staff are under a cloud of suspicion as a result of the very public accusations of allegedly performing illegal abortion procedures," Gallagher wrote in the lawsuit filed in Leon County.

In a letter to the clinics' lawyer dated Tuesday, Williams wrote that the agency has not changed its interpretation of the rule.

The three clinics "are authorized within the scope of their current licenses to continue providing terminations of pregnancy during the first 14 completed weeks from the last normal menstrual period (i.e., during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy/gestation)," Williams wrote.

State officials said that, although both sides agree on the 14-week period, Planned Parenthood may be relying on a different interpretation of when the pregnancy actually begins, or the disagreement could simply be a reporting error.

In announcing the clinics were dropping the lawsuit early Wednesday, Zdravecky hailed AHCA for what she called a "concession" on the issue.

"While we will of course cooperate with legitimate investigations, the public does not want elected officials spending time and money looking into bogus claims that are just part of a political agenda. We hope that lawmakers in Florida will now turn their attention to helping more Floridians access care, not less,” Zdravecky said in a statement.

Late Wednesday, Planned Parenthood representatives said they would not pursue the request for the injunction, but left the door open for further legal action.