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  1. Health

Planned Parenthood braces for fight

Planned Parenthood Tampa Health Center manager Jennifer De Jesus, right, advises patient Alexandria Barlow, 23, of Tampa.

TAMPA — Alexandria Barlow stood in the back of a small crowd Wednesday, hair pulled back, brown hoodie zipped up, waiting for the Planned Parenthood health center to open at 11 a.m.

She wasn't there to end a pregnancy. She was there to prevent one.

"I'm interested in birth control," the soft-spoken 23-year-old told a clinic employee.

Barlow, who has been living with friends in Tampa while she looks for a permanent home, wasn't sure where else to go. She doesn't have health insurance, and couldn't afford the fees a traditional gynecologist would charge for a birth control consultation and exam.

"I'm glad they're here," Barlow said of Planned Parenthood. "I don't want unplanned babies that I couldn't take care of."

But as she sat down to discuss her birth control options with a medical professional, a different narrative was unfolding on Capitol Hill. Enraged by an undercover video in which a Planned Parenthood official discussed the use of fetal tissue for research, House Republicans described the organization's practice of performing abortions in graphic detail and made the case for cutting its federal funding, which is about $500 million.

During a high-profile hearing titled "Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation's Largest Abortion Provider," Rep. Trent Franks accused Planned Parenthood of committing "the worst human rights atrocity in the history of the United States of America."

"Mr. Chairman, the sands of time should blow over this Capitol dome before we ever give Planned Parenthood another dime of taxpayer money," the Arizona Republican said through tears.

Bitter fights over Planned Parenthood aren't new to Washington. The organization, which performs 300,000 abortions nationwide each year, has long been a political lightning rod.

The latest dustup, however, could have lasting consequences. Conservative lawmakers, led by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have threatened to shut down the government if Planned Parenthood receives any federal money, setting the stage for a showdown this month.

Planned Parenthood officials have been quick to point out that, by law, federal dollars cannot be spent on abortions, except in cases of rape or incest. (Seventeen states allow the money to be used for "medically needed" abortions, but Florida is not one of them.) The officials say a $500 million cut to Planned Parenthood's $1.3 billion national operating budget would force a reduction in preventative services nationwide.

The health centers in Tampa and St. Petersburg would feel the effect, said Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. The group's Tampa site alone sees up to 60 patients a day, the vast majority of whom are there for women's health exams, birth control or testing for sexually transmitted infections.

"Most of these young women don't have another doctor to go to," Zdravecky said.

Within an hour of the clinic's opening Wednesday morning, 11 patients had already signed in at the front desk. Eight wanted new birth control prescriptions or refills on existing ones. One requested a women's health exam. Another asked for a sexually transmitted infections test.

It was enough to keep the nurse practitioner and four medical assistants shuttling between exam rooms with test results, pamphlets and samples of birth control tucked under their arms.

A medical assistant brought Barlow up to date on the latest birth control methods, including a new device that is implanted under the skin in the arm. She also received information on how to detect breast cancer, which runs in her family.

After the consultation, Barlow said she felt good about taking a proactive approach to her health.

"Usually, I wait until something serious comes up and go through the emergency room," she said.

There were no abortions that day. Most of the Planned Parenthood health centers that are licensed to end pregnancies offer the service once a week. The Tampa clinic, the busiest in southwest Florida, performs abortions Tuesday afternoons and Fridays when a medical doctor, ultrasound technician and two registered nurses are also working.

The number of abortions varies week to week, site manager Jennifer De Jesus said. The first week of September, it was about eight. The week before, about 30.

The figures are in line with Planned Parenthood's national statistics. The organization says abortions account for less than 10 percent of the services it provides in any given year.

As they brace for what could come from the debate in Washington, Planned Parenthood officials in Florida are also facing a backlash from Tallahassee.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott recently ordered an investigation into the 16 Planned Parenthood health centers that offer abortion services in Florida. The state Agency for Health Care Administration cited the centers in St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and Naples for performing abortions in the second trimester despite only being licensed for first-trimester procedures, and a clinic in Broward County for improper recordkeeping.

Planned Parenthood says the three citations relating to abortions were given only because the state unexpectedly changed its position on when the second trimester begins. The organization has asked a circuit court judge to weigh in.

Zdravecky, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, called the actions politically motivated. She said the organization is working to keep its focus on patients.

"All of this distraction takes us away from taking care of women, which is what we are here for," she said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.