The $2 million coronavirus relief loan Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida received from the federal government was a lifeline. The Planned Parenthood affiliate, which operates 10 health clinics in the region, had been pulverized by the coronavirus pandemic, and CEO Stephanie Fraim had spent days agonizing over whether she’d have to lay off employees.
The loan, Fraim knew, would help people keep their jobs. It would help Floridians keep their healthcare.
Then, only a few weeks later, a Fox News report came out: The U.S. government wanted to claw back the money it’d given to Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country. And it might even levy penalties.
Within hours, Republican senators piled on, calling for an investigation into the report’s claims that 37 Planned Parenthood affiliates collectively received more than $80 million in federal funds earmarked for small businesses crippled by the pandemic. But Planned Parenthood says this is part of a larger, targeted attack on reproductive rights.
“It was crystal-clear that we met every single criteria that they had set out for applying to this loan,” Fraim said. “At the time that we were getting this loan, the economic uncertainty and our outlook was grim. All U.S. businesses and healthcare providers especially were facing — it was happening so rapidly, businesses were closing so rapidly. That moment was treacherous. And this loan came along at an important time.”
Fraim estimates that she’s already spent about half the money to stay afloat.
Planned Parenthood has nearly 50 affiliates scattered across the country, all of which are incorporated as separate 501(c)(3)s and operate independently of the mothership organization, Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Each affiliate has its own leaders and board, files its own tax documents, and oversees its own health centers within a geographic region.
Many also employ fewer than 500 people — the cutoff level for receiving loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, which is intended to quickly infuse organizations with the cash they need to cover payroll and keep the lights on through the pandemic.
But anti-abortion Republicans are not sympathetic to that plight.
“Planned Parenthood is not a small business. It is a multibillion-dollar company,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican and die-hard abortion opponent, wrote in a letter to the head of the Small Business Administration on Wednesday. He added, “It is hard to conclude anything other than that Planned Parenthood committed fraud.”
“Those funds must be returned immediately,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told Fox News. “If Planned Parenthood, the banks, or staff at the [Small Business Administration] knowingly violated the law, all appropriate legal options should be pursued.”
In a letter sent to Planned Parenthood of Delaware and obtained by VICE News, the Small Business Administration warned that the affiliate could face “severe penalties,” including criminal or civil sanctions, if borrowers are found to have knowingly made false statements in their loan applications.
Since its inception in late March, the Paycheck Protection Program has approved more than $500 billion in loans. And all kinds of businesses have ended up receiving money, sometimes sparking public outcry.
At least 94 publicly traded companies, some valued at more than $100 million, received aid, the Associated Press reported. Several multimillion-dollar oil and gas companies also received millions, VICE News found. (While some companies ended up returning their loans, others have refused to do so.) Even the Girl Scouts of Alaska, a local Girl Scouts council, reportedly received a loan to help cover its inability to sell cookies. Like Planned Parenthood affiliates, the Girl Scouts of Alaska is a 501(c)(3).
Faith-based groups that aim to convince women to not get abortions have also been advised by anti-abortion leaders how to receive loans from the program, though it’s unclear if any ultimately received the money. On Thursday, the president of National Institute of Family and Life Advocates — an organization that offers legal counsel, education, and training to more than 1,500 such groups — slammed Planned Parenthood over the loans.
“The last thing Americans should fund with taxpayer dollars is the bailout of this corrupt, cash-rich abortion giant,” President Thomas Glessner said. (It is already illegal for federal dollars to pay for most abortions.)
The Small Business Administration didn’t respond to questions from VICE News about whether the agency has tried to claw back funds from individual organizations. The agency also told VICE News that it did not comment on individual borrowers.
“This is a clear political attack on Planned Parenthood health centers and access to reproductive healthcare,” Jacqueline Ayers, vice president of government relations and public policy for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. Planned Parenthood Federation of America didn’t apply for a loan through the bailout program, because it’s too big to qualify.
“It has nothing to do with Planned Parenthood healthcare organizations’ eligibility for COVID-19 relief efforts,” Ayes added, “and everything to do with the Trump administration using a public health crisis to advance a political agenda and distract from their own failures in protecting the American public from the spread of COVID-19.”
Experts have warned for weeks that Planned Parenthood affiliates could be easily cut out of the Paycheck Protection Program. President Donald Trump’s Small Business Administration has broad latitude to determine whether Planned Parenthood’s affiliates should be counted on their own or as one mammoth organization, these experts say, but Planned Parenthood Federation of America maintains its affiliates are independent enough based on the Small Business Administration’s own requirements.
In its letter to Planned Parenthood of Delaware, the Small Business Administration says that Planned Parenthood shouldn’t receive its coronavirus aid because it’s managed by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, pointing to the affiliates’ adherence to bylaws and standards set by the flagship group. Planned Parenthood argues that those bylaws don’t grant Planned Parenthood Federation of America power over its affiliates’ internal operations — and that the affiliates set those bylaws in the first place.
If Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida does have to return the money, Fraim said that she would need to again explore laying off staff or closing health centers, which handle about 70,000 patient visits per year. Her affiliate employs less than 200 people, and of its 10 health centers, seven perform abortions.
“It’s almost too painful to contemplate,” she said.
Cover: Metro police officers and clinic escorts stand outside of the Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., during a protest vigil sponsored by The Christian Defense Coalition and Priests for Life Carol Whitehill Moses Center on January 17, 2019. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)