This article originally appeared in Latina magazine's March 2016 issue.
The Planned Parenthood health center in East Orlando, Fla., opens its doors at 10:30 a.m. on Thursdays, and this morning, its first patient walks in hurriedly as soon as receptionist Gloria Mier unlocks the front door.
“Do you have an appointment today,” asks Mier, who is puertorriqueña, in slightly accented English.
“No, I don’t. I’m here for a pregnancy test.”
“OK, have a seat,” Mier says cheerfully.
The East Orlando center helps some 6,500 patients a year, many of them low-income Latinas from the Caribbean islands and coastal countries like Colombia and Venezuela. Like today’s first walk-in, more than 1,000 patients request pregnancy tests annually, but most often people come here for other reasons: 10,227 sought testing in 2014 for HIV/AIDS and other STDs, while birth control pills accounted for 3,695 visits. Fewer than 1 percent of the center’s patients—132 in all—underwent abortions.
Until recently, these services were very widely regarded as family planning and community health services. That state of affairs has changed radically across the country, with Florida—ranked as one of the worst states in the U.S. for women’s well-being by the Center for Reproductive Rights—standing among the most prominent. Following the release of the infamous, now-discredited “sting” videos damning Planned Parenthood abortion practices, Gov. Rick Scott opened an investigation into 16 of the organization’s centers in the state; when reports came back finding no evidence to support allegations that Planned Parenthood mishandled fetal remains, Gov. Scott’s office scrubbed press releases reporting those findings and instead recommended disciplinary action against the nonprofit group’s medical personnel. Two Florida Republican presidential candidates, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, support total defunding of the health organization, which could deny millions of people—including some 575,000 Latino patients nationwide— such lifesaving care as breast and cervical cancer screenings. In that environment, Planned Parenthood has become a target of attack—literally.
ATTACKS ON FACILITIES
In December, just weeks after the deadly shootings at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs, an incident occurred at the organization’s Miami facility; a visit by Latina in connection with this article was then rescheduled due to security concerns. Threats have also been reported in Central Florida. In 2014, a bomb squad investigated a suspicious package left at a newly opened Kissimmee center two days after protesters tried to break into the clinic. The East Orlando facility also received a bomb threat.
While Planned Parenthood’s opponents focus on the abortions it provides, the medical procedure accounts for just 3 percent of the national organization’s total services.
“We primarily do preventative work,” says Aileen Lopez, who manages the East Orlando center. “We are not the primary abortion provider in Florida.”
Most abortion providers in Florida are private, and Lopez says they rarely make headlines. This clinic administers abortion care just two days each month by pill, which is only available for pregnancies up to nine weeks. Like eight other Planned Parenthood facilities across the state, the East Orlando center—which is close to three universities, including the second-largest school in the country, the University of Central Florida (UCF)—refers patients who are further along to facilities further away that have adequate equipment.
ATTACKS ON FUNDING
“I received a call from my pharmacist telling me to refill my birth control,” Elizabeth Reyes (who asked that only her middle and last names be used) tells Mier at the reception desk. The half-Cuban college student is dressed in a boho maxi-skirt, with a multicolored headscarf wrapped around her long, dirty blonde hair.
“It helps women of any age,” Reyes says of why she has relied on the East Orlando center for all her women’s health needs, from free STI testing and reduced-priced contraception to the time she needed someone to remove a stuck tampon. She adds that Planned Parenthood is cleaner than other clinics, it supports women, and it’s affordable for her as a UCF student living 166 miles away from her West Palm Beach home.
Inexpensive reproductive health care is crucial in this part of the state, where Latino residents have high rates of poverty and unemployment. Many are Puerto Ricans displaced by the island’s financial crisis, which has been pushing thousands to book one-way flights to the region each month; thousands more boricuas have arrived from gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago and Northeastern cities where the cost of living has risen.
Fortunately for them, most of the services at this center are offered at a reduced cost. But this still isn’t enough.
In 2001, then Florida Gov. Bush axed over $300,000 in Planned Parenthood funding, a feat he has boasted about on the 2016 campaign trail when calling for a national defunding of the nonprofit. Today, there is no state funding for Planned Parenthood in Florida, causing facilities to rely on federal resources like Medicaid and Title X, a grant program providing family planning and related health care to low-income and uninsured families.
However, in the Sunshine State, even this aid is limited. As governor, Bush nixed Title X funding for Planned Parenthood, directing it instead to local health departments, which do not offer abortions and have cut back on reproductive health-care services and prenatal care. Ironically, some of the local departments, drowning in patients, help relieve their caseloads by directing funds to nearby Planned Parenthoods. And Medicaid funding is often hamstrung by complex state regulations enacted to restrict funding to certain HMOs. Abortion is not among the services offered (except in cases of incest or rape).
For three years, Yasmin Andre, a Mexican American community health educator, worked with East Orlando’s Latino youth through a local Planned Parenthood program called “Cuídate”— take care of yourself. Through the six-week workshop, she would spend an hour a week at middle schools and high schools, arming students with the information, tools, and support they needed to reduce their risk of STIs and HIV and instill confidence in their ability to either abstain from sex or practice it safely and consensually. Cuídate has since been cut for lack of funding. “These are the types of programs that get affected, the educational ones, the ones most people would support,” Andre says.
WHERE WILL THEY GO?
Back in the lobby, a Dominican woman chats with Mier in Spanish about payments for a checkup, while her 7-year-old daughter begs to watch a TV show streaming on her mother’s smartphone. Meanwhile, a Latino couple nervously waits to be called for a pregnancy test; a frustrated-looking African American mother accompanies her daughter for an STI test; and a white woman waits to purchase Plan B, the morning-after pill.
The clinic closes at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, so Mier and Andrea Castro, who also works at the front desk, are expecting a rush of patients hoping to get their walk-in appointments and purchases completed after their workday. Many of those who come in like to chat with the receptionists.
After paying for a refill on her birth control, a married woman asks Castro if the center gets a lot of protesters.
“Sometimes. But it’s usually not so bad,” Castro says.
“I see what they keep saying on the news, but I think you guys do good work,” the woman says. “It’s nice to have a place where young people can go to get counseling and HIV tests. I’m married, but that doesn’t mean I’m in a position to have a baby.”
Will opposition succeed in shuttering this haven? Planned Parenthood’s supporters are active and energized. The doors are still open—for now.