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Local Controversy Over Crisis Pregnancy Centers Mirrors State, National Debates

May 24, 2018
Originally published on May 24, 2018 2:32 pm

Jacksonville’s Emergency Pregnancy Services center is holding a fundraiser Wednesday night at Bold City Brewery in Riverside and protesters will be there to greet them.

EPS donates maternity clothes and baby supplies to disadvantaged pregnant women, while connecting them to outside medical services provided by Medicaid. But EPS isn’t a licensed medical facility and doesn’t pretend to be, said EPS director Sandra Duggan.

“And I also want to make it clear that we are a counseling agency, we are not a medical facility. There are no pills and anything that we would even consider giving a client,” she said.

Across the country, crisis pregnancy centers like EPS employ pregnancy peer counselors, who are often unlicensed, to give women information on options for having a baby, including adoption and government sponsored support for struggling mothers like the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition program. What the often-religiously affiliated organizations won’t do is connect those women with abortion providers or contraception.

It’s for that reason the centers have become lightning rods around the country and it’s also why the event ignited controversy two weeks ago on social media when the group described its arrangement with the brewery as a partnership. Women shared posts, called the brewery and commented on its Facebook page expressing abject disapproval.

Opponents of crisis pregnancy centers say they misrepresent themselves as medical facilities and shame women from having abortions but Duggan said the facility doesn’t try to persuade women — it just provides them with information about abortion, access to birth resources and sonograms.

Still, protest organizer and president of the Jacksonville chapter of the National Organization for Women Judy Shecklin said what Duggan describes is exactly the problem — the information provided by unlicensed counselors isn’t always accurate and sonograms can be used to guilt women into having babies they don’t want.

“These sonograms are used in ways that, again, shame and intimidate women. You know, ‘look at your fetus it’s doing this or that’ and then you have the pieces of information that are inaccurate,” she said.

Shecklin also told WJCT News she doesn’t believe centers like EPS should be receiving state money.

Duggan said her center doesn’t receive any tax dollars but does receive some grants.  

Still, many of the approximately 120 centers that exist in Florida now will receive tax money under a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, annually earmarks $4 million for the centers, 90 percent of which must be devoted to services. The remaining funding can be used for marketing, like billboards, reported Florida public radio affiliate WFSU.

When discussing his bill in February, Bean said there’s nothing wrong with the centers being against abortion or advocating for birth.

“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,” he said.

Bean’s measure included some provisions mandating “scientifically accurate” information be provided to women and restated the state’s position that women shouldn’t be pressured into making a specific decision or prostylized to, but Democratic lawmakers like Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, didn’t think those protections went far enough.

Gibson said the clinics had biased agendas that were harmful to many women.

“That to me is unimaginable that we would turn someone out because they are indecisive about what their next step should be,” she said.

As these local and state battles over crisis pregnancy centers continue, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing a lawsuit against a California law that mandates clinics disclose licensure status and provide information on where a women can access a full range of pregnancy services provided by the state, among other things, NPR reported.

Meanwhile, Shecklin said her protest is to bring awareness to potential donors to EPS, not against Bold City or the women who use EPS services.

Bold City representatives said the brewery hosts a variety of organizations and events, but allowing groups to rent space is not an endorsement of their views or message.

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