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Florida is the latest state to defund Planned Parenthood even though it's probably illegal

Florida Gov. Rick Scott Holds Bill Signing In Miami Gardens
Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a sweeping anti-abortion bill into law on Friday, more or less daring advocates to take the state to court over it, and it looks certain they will.

The law defunds Planned Parenthood in a way that may be illegal, and includes other provisions that are being challenged at the Supreme Court because they close abortion clinics for no medical reason.

The law, HB 1411, cuts off all state funding for clinics that provide abortions. That means kicking Planned Parenthood out of the state's Medicaid program, which the federal government has warned states they're not actually allowed to do.

The law also requires physicians who provide abortions to have "admitting privileges" with a nearby hospital, a requirement that has helped close down about half of abortion clinics in Texas. Admitting privileges are incredibly difficult for abortion providers to get, for various administrative and political reasons that have nothing to do with safety or competency. That's one reason the Texas laws requiring them are being challenged at the Supreme Court.

Florida is the latest state to jump on the "defund Planned Parenthood" bandwagon

This summer, anti-abortion activists released discredited propaganda videos claiming that Planned Parenthood illegally "sells baby parts" to fetal tissue researchers. Multiple investigations have either found no evidence of these claims or actively cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing, but anti-abortion lawmakers still use the videos as an excuse to attack the organization's funding.

That attack has been massive and widespread. Just since the videos were released in July, according to the New York Times editorial board, 23 states have tried to defund Planned Parenthood in one way or another. Eleven have succeeded, and Arizona and Missouri will probably make it 13 before long.

But courts have also blocked about half a dozen states, like Louisiana, from doing the same thing as Florida and defunding Planned Parenthood through Medicaid.

In previous years, states like Texas and Indiana have successfully used other methods to cut Planned Parenthood funding. That has had disastrous public health consequences, including HIV outbreaks and a rise in birth rates among poor women who can't afford contraception.

And in states like Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich recently signed another defunding bill, officials are trying to get at Planned Parenthood less directly — by kicking it out of programs that promote maternal and infant health or prevent HIV. Public health officials warn that other providers can't pick up the slack for those programs.

Even worse, health officials say, laws like Florida's and Ohio's could have a disastrous domino defunding effect. Ohio's and Florida's laws basically deny funding to organizations that are even affiliated with abortion providers. That could theoretically defund hospitals or entire public health departments.

Florida's new law also beefs up the criminal penalties for selling fetal tissue. The "selling baby parts" claims from the Planned Parenthood videos have inspired several states to pass laws about fetal tissue research or disposal. The most stringent is Indiana's, which requires all fetal tissue to be cremated or buried even if it comes from an early miscarriage.

States like Florida mislead on how this affects women's health care

Here, too, Florida follows in Ohio's footsteps. Officials in both states have claimed that defunding Planned Parenthood won't have a negative impact on health care because other providers will step up to fill the gap.

But officials in both states have also offered bogus lists of "other" providers, which include dentists, elementary school nurses' offices, and other places that obviously don't offer birth control or sexual health screenings.

Even if all of the entries on the list were legitimate women's health care providers, it wouldn't change the fact that Planned Parenthood is often the highest-volume health care provider in many communities. There's just no way that clinics with lower capacity can step up to fill the gap, yet politicians on both the state and federal level keep claiming otherwise.

Florida also tries to redefine pregnancy trimesters

This is sort of a minor point, but a weird one: The bill says the second trimester of pregnancy starts at 12 weeks, when the standard medical definition is actually 14 weeks.

That's because actual doctors date a pregnancy from the first date of the woman's last menstrual period (LMP). Florida's legislature, however, says pregnancy should be defined in terms of "gestation," or "the development of a human embryo or fetus between fertilization and birth."

The problem with this is that it's really hard to tell when an egg was actually fertilized. That's why doctors use the LMP method. "Gestational age" is less precise, but counting that way is roughly two weeks shorter than LMP.

So 14 weeks LMP is basically the same thing as 12 weeks of "gestation."

Why does this matter? Two reasons:

  1. It confuses the issue of fetal age by making people think a pregnancy is farther along sooner than it really is. This allows supporters of 20-week abortion bans, for instance, to falsely claim that a few 20-week fetuses have been known to survive, when they really mean 22 weeks.
  2. It's just more proof that many lawmakers who regulate abortion have no clue about how pregnancy works.