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

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

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

How the politics of abortion protects bad clinics.
Feb. 25 2011 7:15 AM

Choosing Sides

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

The Back Alley: How the Politics of Abortion Protects Bad Clinics, part 7

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.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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.
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.