Remember those billboards on the highway imploring drivers to "choose life"? Florida lawmakers want to fund them with taxpayer dollars. A bill that would cement contracts with pro-life pregnancy centers is heading to the Governor’s desk.
It’s hard to ignore the billboards. Many show a scared young woman holding a pregnancy test. Others show grinning toddlers. If Governor Scott signs a bill the full legislature approved, those signs could have a permanent funding stream of taxpayer dollars.
The state has been funding a network of crisis pregnancy centers since 2005 as a part of their annual budget process. Now state lawmakers want to make this program permanent for clinics that are exclusively pro-life. Jacksonville Republican Senator Aaron Bean is sponsoring the bill.
“Yeah they’re about life. They are about life, about having that baby. But they’re also about giving support where none rarely exists before,” Bean said.
Women who walk into these centers can get pregnancy tests, counseling and referrals to doctors and community services. Lady Lake Republican Senator Dennis Baxley says these clinics are safe places for women in need.
“And it still puzzles me why we can’t meet at this center point. While we disagree about how we look at the issue of abortion, can’t we love these women? Can’t we support the idea of coming alongside them and multiplying the effort from our community to walk with them through a difficult experience?” Baxley asked.
Critics paint the organizations as quasi-religious and anti-science, and say they’re misleading or coercing women into having a child. Democratic Senator Lauren Book says she's seen it herself.
“After hearing stories of inaccurate information being given to clients at some of these pregnancy crisis centers, I personally visited a pregnancy crisis center with a friend who needed assistance. And I saw firsthand questionable science being offered as fact, which concerns me that we are, as a state, legitimizing these centers,” Book said.
There are crisis pregnancy centers all across Florida and not all of them get state money. But the bill would ban the use of religious content or coercion for the ones that do. And Bean says the Department of Health would monitor the information they’re giving out.
“Not only the information given on the literature and pamphlets, but all services are subject to that same bar where they’re not going to be faith-based. Proselytizing is going to be prohibited in the bill,” Bean said.
But that doesn’t satisfy Democratic Senator Gary Farmer. The clinics would still be required to only encourage childbirth.
“I am a firm-believer in separation of church and state and I don’t think we should be authoring such legislation,” Farmer said.
Democrats painted the clinics as biased after Bean said they would only serve women who decide to keep the pregnancy. Here’s Jacksonville Democratic Senator Audrey Gibson.
“That to me is unimaginable that we would turn someone out because they are indecisive about what their next step should be,” Gibson said.
Democrats tried to amend the bill in a number of different ways. They wanted stiffer requirements for scientific accuracy, more monitoring of the clinics, and more ways to lodge complaints. The Republican majority voted down all of them, saying the bill already addressed the issues. Bean says, ironically, critics of crisis pregnancy centers should support his plan.
“If we need more oversight in this area then you’re going to vote for the bill! You’re going to vote for the bill because unlike ever before in the 12 years the pregnancy support has existed in proviso, never before has there been…never before has there been oversight,” Bean said.
The plan would earmark $4 million a year to the clinics. 90% of the funds would have to go to services, not for things like marketing and billboards. Both chambers approved the bill on mainly party line votes. Now the issue is up to Governor Rick Scott.