As a feminist, Marissa is pro-choice, which means she supports legal access to elective abortions, which are legal in Florida during the first trimester and up to 24 and 28 weeks, with certain restrictions. But facing the decision for herself, Marissa says she wanted to weigh all her options — one of them being abortion — and admits she's been having a difficult time. This is the first time she is aware that she has ever been pregnant. (For fear of harassment, she asked that New Times not publish her last name.)
At first, Marissa tried to secure an appointment with Planned Parenthood, but she says an operator told her none was available until mid-September. So on Tuesday, August 31, she typed something along the lines of "abortion clinic Miami" into her web browser and clicked on the first or second result: a third-party referral service called Women's Choice Care, which advertises "abortion information consultations" and features an image of a woman in medical scrubs, a clipboard, and stethoscope. When she called the 954 number, an operator at Women's Choice Care scheduled an appointment at a North Miami clinic only three days later.
At that point, Marissa hadn’t yet decided whether she wanted to have an abortion but says she expected a judgment-free consultation with a medical professional to ask questions about her options and the procedure.
Marissa arrived Friday morning at a beige, unassuming two-story shopping center off NE 125th Street next to a Taco Bell and a private equity firm. A statue of the Virgin Mary greeted her near the clinic’s entrance. A TV inside the lobby was tuned to a religious medical talk show. Religious texts and ultrasound images of unborn fetuses adorned the walls. In another room, she noticed seemingly out-of-place children's toys and a play area.
Marissa began panicking. “What is this? Are you pro-choice?'" she asked the staff, who were dressed in plainclothes, not medical scrubs as in the photos she'd seen on the website.
"No, we'll discuss all the options with you," she says one staffer assured her.
"One of those options is to keep this blessing from God," added another.
As the Supreme Court refused to block the Texas six-week abortion-ban law last week and Florida Republicans hastened to announce they're considering a similar bill, the fate of women’s access to legal abortions in the Sunshine State is an open question. Even without a so-called heartbeat bill — which would ban abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, at around six weeks — Florida is already home to anti-abortion clinics that advertise themselves as a nonpartisan resource to pregnant women seeking abortion consultations.
Many of these facilities are Christian-run and portray themselves as medical centers despite operating without medical licenses or licensed professionals. Most receive financial backing from the anti-abortion group Florida Pregnancy Care Network, which according to a 2018 report in the Tampa Bay Times, received more than $21 million in state funding through the Florida Department of Health thanks to a law signed in 2018 by then-Gov. Rick Scott.
The reproductive-rights group Floridians for Reproductive Freedom (FRF) estimates that close to 200 such centers operate across the state, including 11 in Miami-Dade and 10 in Broward. According to FRF, these centers "exist to talk women out of abortions."
FRF asserts that any woman who opts to have an abortion "should have support and respect, and her experience should be without shame or pressure."
Shame and pressure are what Marissa says she experienced at the Pregnancy Help Medical Clinic in North Miami last week. The facility — along with three sister clinics in Hialeah, Kendall, and Flagler — is run by Heartbeat of Miami, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Hialeah and founded in 2006 by Rev. John Ensor, an evangelical pastor. It is linked to the international Christian organization Heartbeat International, which identifies as the nation's first network of pregnancy crisis centers and operates close to 3,000 such facilities worldwide. The Miami group did not respond to New Times' requests for comment via phone and email.
Heartbeat of Miami's stated mission is to "help women with unplanned or unwanted pregnancies through the Gospel of Life and the message of hope" by "establishing life-saving, life-changing pregnancy help medical clinics in the neediest neighborhoods of South Florida." The organization's Facebook page is filled with pro-life hashtags like #EndAbortion and #chooselife. The LinkedIn bio of Heartbeat of Miami's president, Martha Avila, reads "Pro-life is Pro-woman!"
Though Heartbeat of Miami runs the North Miami Pregnancy Help Medical Clinic, you wouldn't know it if you happened upon the latter's website. Reached by phone by a New Times reporter on Tuesday and asked whether the facility provided abortions, an employee at the clinic did not immediately answer, instead inquiring about whether the caller had taken a pregnancy test and an ultrasound. When pressed for a definitive yes or no regarding abortions, the staffer said the center does not offer the procedure.
Facilities like North Miami Pregnancy Help have long been the subject of complaints and lawsuits by pro-choice groups, which accuse them of preying on low-income women with free services and deceptive information. Because many aren't considered medical practices and do not charge for services, they're often exempt from laws and regulations specific to medical clinics, making them difficult to regulate.
On its website, Pregnancy Help in North Miami advertises free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, as well as vague services like "information on your options" and "community resource connections." While the site doesn't explicitly advertise abortions, a page is titled Abortion Education, which offers help to women facing unexpected pregnancies and describes the various ways to have an abortion with images of women in medical scrubs. "If you are considering abortion as an option, or uncertain about your pregnancy options, we are here to help you," the text states. "Schedule your FREE abortion information consultation today."
The website assures prospective patients that "It’s Your Choice."
Marissa says her experience last week failed to live up to that billing.
In a tear-filled interview with New Times, she recounted how she was led into an exam room by an employee who locked the door behind them. Once the clinic’s agenda became clear to her, Marissa says, she left as quickly as she could, taking back her ID from a clipboard, physically moving the employee out of her way to unlock the exam-room door. On her way out of the clinic, she says, she heard two staffers praying for her.
"It's so scary right now," Marissa tells New Times. "I just feel like it also affects women who aren't of a certain status or don't have certain things available, who are looking for just a safe place that they can afford."
During a follow-up call, Marissa said she has scheduled an appointment with Planned Parenthood for September 17.
In the meantime, she plans to take some time alone to figure out the best path forward.
"Whether I'm thinking about an abortion or not, getting pregnant as a single woman is really scary," she says. "And it just seems like there's limited places that you can trust just to go in and get help for information. And that's wild."