TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The Florida Family Policy Council on Thursday called for Gov. Rick Scott to take further action against the state's 16 Planned Parenthood abortion clinics, saying it's a matter of moral leadership.
"We believe this is a litmus test," said John Stemberger, president of the group, which advocates for socially conservative causes. "We're asking him to lead on something other than just jobs."
Stemberger asked Scott to "immediately cut and strip Planned Parenthood of all state public funding sources" --- although a Scott spokeswoman and Planned Parenthood said it's doubtful the governor has the authority to do so, since the money comes from federal Medicaid and family-planning funds.
Planned Parenthood, which offers reproductive-health and other services to low-income Americans, has been in the eye of a political storm for months, since the release of controversial videos by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress.
Conservatives, including Stemberger, argue the videos implicate Planned Parenthood in profiting from selling fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood vehemently denies the charge, but congressional Republicans have used the issue to try to cut off federal funding for the organization.
After Scott saw a video in July, officials from the state Agency for Health Care Administration inspected and fined five abortion clinics --- including three Planned Parenthood clinics --- in August. The clinics were cited for performing illegal second-trimester abortions, a charge they deny.
The clinics are contesting the fines. They say the state changed its definition of a first-trimester abortion in order to justify the sanctions.
But Stemberger said Scott hadn't gone far enough to oppose Planned Parenthood. The governor quickly refuted the charge in a statement.
"We took aggressive, immediate action to investigate Planned Parenthood offices in Florida when the horrific videos were released," Scott wrote. "When we found that some of their facilities were not complying with state law, we held them accountable."
Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said in a statement that the Scott administration had harassed her organization without merit.
"We have clearly demonstrated that the recent round of politically motivated investigations in Florida uncovered nothing more than continued harassment from Governor Rick Scott's health care agency," she wrote.
Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora and a staunch abortion foe, praised Scott for the clinic sanctions and also for signing bills curbing access to legal abortion.
One such bill, sponsored by Sullivan, would require women to wait 24 hours before getting abortions, effectively requiring them to make two trips to clinics. Scott quickly signed the measure this year, but a court has at least temporarily blocked it from taking effect.
"I think our governor has been a strong proponent of life," Sullivan said. "From an executive standpoint, he has shown leadership."
Sullivan also said she doubted whether Planned Parenthood's funding was an executive matter.
"I believe removing that funding would be more of a legislative issue," she said. "That's something we'll be able to take a look at as a legislative body. And I'm very confident the governor would sign that legislation."
But Stemberger said Scott could do more, such as cutting Planned Parenthood's Medicaid contract by executive order and ending subcontracts with clinics in Broward and Collier counties.
In a rare moment of agreement, Scott and Planned Parenthood questioned the governor's authority to do that.
"If the state were to take action to exclude Florida Planned Parenthood affiliates from Medicaid this would be in clear violation of federal law," Goodhue wrote.
"Only around $45,000 in state match goes through the federal Medicaid program to Planned Parenthood offices in our state, and that is guided through the federal Medicaid formula in compliance with federal law," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz wrote in an email. "The state has contracts at three Planned Parenthood clinics which are used for newborn health screens and various health services. Those contracts require Planned Parenthood to comply with all state and federal laws."
Additionally, Schutz and Goodhue noted, federal law bans the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions except in cases of endangerment to the mother, rape or incest.
While Stemberger acknowledged that there is no direct state funding for abortions in Florida, he said Scott could and should cancel Planned Parenthood's state contracts for reproductive and other health services as he would with any other provider.
"Health-care contracts are canceled all the time by the governor for unqualified providers that engage in problems," Stemberger said. "Because this is Planned Parenthood, they're getting special treatment because they provide abortion services."
The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report.
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