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State Drops Cases Against Planned Parenthood Clinics

Citing a new abortion law signed by Gov. Rick Scott, the state Agency for Health Care Administration has dismissed cases alleging that three Planned Parenthood clinics performed second-trimester abortions without proper licenses.

The cases stem from a series of AHCA inspections last summer, which produced similar administrative charges against Planned Parenthood centers in St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and Naples and the Bread and Roses Women's Health Center in Gainesville.

The agency contended that the clinics --- based on their own records --- were performing abortions within the second trimester, which they were not licensed to do.

The clinics, however, said they had not performed any illegal procedures, but that AHCA used a shifting definition of what constitutes the first trimester of pregnancy to bring the allegations.

On Monday, AHCA spokeswoman Mallory McManus said the argument is resolved by Scott's approval Friday of a sweeping new law (HB 1411) that contains a new definition of the first trimester consistent with the state's position.

"On Friday, Governor Scott signed HB 1411, which rendered these administrative proceedings moot," McManus wrote in an email. "We will continue to hold Planned Parenthood and all Florida clinics accountable to following the law."

In citing the clinics last summer, AHCA 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.

In response, the clinics pointed to an AHCA rule of nearly a decade's standing that allowed first-trimester abortions during the 14 weeks after a woman's last normal menstrual period. After a legal skirmish in August, the state said the clinics could continue to operate but were still under investigation.

On Monday, Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, blasted the agency for "political gamesmanship" in a statement.

"How convenient that now, six months later, they are conceding their case and dropping these politically motivated charges at the same moment that Rick Scott has signed new trimester standards into law that fly in the face of medically accepted standards," Zdravecky said. "These actions by AHCA make clear they had no evidence and they knew it. Despite this, AHCA filed the charges and caused Planned Parenthood to devote considerable time and resources to frivolous and unwarranted charges when such resources could have been devoted to providing additional care and services to the Floridians who rely on Planned Parenthood every day for health care."

Although the charges were dropped against the three Planned Parenthood clinics, the allegations against Bread and Roses Women's Health Center were not. McManus told The News Service of Florida that was "because the case has already been tried before the administrative law judge."

The Bread and Roses case was heard by an administrative law judge early this month, but the Planned Parenthood cases --- originally scheduled for late January --- had been moved to late April.

However, said Tallahassee attorney Bob Weiss, who represents Bread and Roses, "You can go to trial on a case and then dismiss it. There's nothing that obligates them to continue to pursue this case."

Weiss and Julie Gallagher, a Tallahassee attorney who represents the three Planned Parenthood clinics, said the state is trying to impose a new legal definition on a medical unknown: the moment of fertilization.

The new law changes the definition of a first trimester to the period from fertilization through the end of the 11th week of pregnancy. But Gallagher said because there is no way to pinpoint the moment when fertilization occurs, the only way to measure a pregnancy is based on the date of the woman's last menstrual period.

"The prevailing medical standard is always to measure weeks of pregnancy based on the last menstrual period because nobody is positive when fertilization occurs," Gallagher said. "AHCA now has gone and gotten this new definition put in, but since it goes against everything that the medical profession does, it's unclear how AHCA intends to use the definition."

She predicted the agency's rule-making process in putting HB 1411 into effect would be a difficult one.

McManus, however, said that would not be an issue. "A rule would not be necessary, because the definition is in statute," she said.