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Crowdfunding saves Florida abortion clinic with $193,000 in fines

An Orlando abortion clinic facing $193,000 in state fines has raised more than $200,000 in a crowdfunding effort that will keep one of the city’s last clinics open.

Florida health regulators announced last month that the Center of Orlando for Women repeatedly violated a law that requires women to wait 24 hours before having an abortion in the days after the law took effect. The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) ordered the clinic to pay $1,000 for each of the 193 violations, a total of $193,000 that was nearly three times more than a judge’s recommendation.

But when Julie Gallagher, the clinic’s attorney, wrote in a court document that a fine of that size “would likely force the clinic into bankruptcy or closure,” supporters and activists started an online fundraiser to try to save the Center of Orlando for Women.

They did just that: The fundraising effort had raised more than $211,000 as of Monday morning. Nearly 6,000 people have given to the verified fundraiser on Give Butter, a crowdfunding site for nonprofits. The fundraiser was organized by Stand with Abortion Now, a volunteer organization that escorts patients into the clinic.

“This is a transparent attempt to bankrupt the clinic in order to further limit access to abortion in a state that desperately needs it,” the group wrote on the fundraiser.

Neither Gallagher nor a spokesperson with the AHCA immediately responded to requests for comment Tuesday morning. Gallagher told the Guardian that the state did not tell the clinic when the law would go into effect last year after a judge’s decision, adding that the fundraising efforts would not have been necessary if they had done so.

“The agency wouldn’t tell them anything,” Gallagher said. “You’re calling the regulators to try to get some guidance on what your current obligations are. And they’re saying they don’t know. Well, they knew. They just weren’t telling.”

The fundraising efforts to save the Orlando clinic come months after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a 2024 presidential candidate, signed a bill in April that would ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. The bill, which was passed in the Republican-led legislature, is set to take effect 30 days after one of a few scenarios occurs. It would most likely take effect 30 days after the state Supreme Court issues a decision on the constitutionality of the 15-week ban that is already in effect. The six-week ban — which includes exceptions for rape, incest, medical emergencies and “fatal fetal abnormalities” — outlaws the procedure before many people know they’re pregnant.

More than 82,000 people got abortions in Florida in 2022, more than almost any other state. Almost 7,000 of those abortions were performed on people who traveled from out of state, Florida data shows. There are now more than 50 licensed abortion clinics in Florida, down from 71 in 2014, according to AHCA data.

The Center of Orlando for Women has operated since 1988 and is one of two licensed abortion clinics remaining in Florida’s third-largest city after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. The clinic has been targeted by antiabortion advocates in part because of founder and former owner James Pendergraft, who provided late-term abortions when it was still legal in the 1990s, Orlando Weekly reported. His Florida medical license was suspended in 2013, and he no longer owns the clinic.

In 2015, Florida’s Republican-led legislature passed a law requiring a person to have two visits with a physician at least 24 hours apart to obtain an abortion in the state. Similar laws have been passed in at least a dozen other states, according to the independent health policy research nonprofit KFF. The Florida law was blocked by the courts for seven years through litigation.

But on April 25, 2022, Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey entered a final judgment that upheld the 2015 law. Dempsey, an appointee of then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R), wrote that the plaintiffs in the case could not show they would suffer “irreparable harm” from the waiting period.

“This court does not believe that the 24-hour waiting period is a significant intrusion into that right,” Dempsey wrote, according to the News Service of Florida.

Then last month, the AHCA alleged that 193 abortions were performed at the Orlando clinic without 24-hour waiting periods between April 26, 2022, and May 7, 2022. Filings made by Gallagher to the Division of Administrative Hearings show that the clinic repeatedly reached out to health regulators in April 2022 and early May 2022 for clarity on when the law would take effect, but did not get information.

“Respondent (the clinic) took necessary and reasonable steps to discover the effective date of 24-hour requirement so that it would be in compliance,” Gallagher wrote.

After Administrative Law Judge J. Bruce Culpepper issued a recommended order in the spring that the clinic should pay a $67,550 fine — $350 for each violation — AHCA Secretary Jason Weida signed an order in August saying the state would collect a maximum of $1,000 for each of the 193 violations of the law.

“The record is devoid of any reasons why respondent (the clinic) could not comply with the law prior to May 9, 2022, which was the date it first began complying with it,” Weida wrote, according to the News Service of Florida.

The decision was met by blowback from critics and Democrats. Among them was state Rep. Anna Eskamani, who represents Orlando.

“This is a local abortion provider that is being charged excessive fees by AHCA all designed to shut them down,” she wrote last month on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Within 48 hours of the fine, clinic volunteers who escort people in and out of the Center of Orlando for Women launched the online fundraiser to prevent it from shutting down. Weeks later, they have exceeded the goal to help clinic pay its six-figure fine and keep it open.

As many donated to the fundraiser, some left comments thanking the clinic for fighting to stay open: “Helping you helps women across the South.”

Lori Rozsa and Caroline Kitchener contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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