How a Sarasota school board member supports a crisis pregnancy center pushing bad medicine

The Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center sign / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

A Sarasota County School Board member who fought to block Planned Parenthood sex education lessons in county classrooms has ties to a local anti-choice crisis pregnancy center that provides false medical information about abortion to women seeking help.

Located in an inconspicuous Bee Ridge strip mall, the Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center describes itself on its website as “a nonprofit 501©3 organization dedicated to providing help and hope to women and families facing unintended pregnancies.”

“Through the sharing of unconditional love, the truth about abortion and its alternatives including adoption, lives are being saved,” the Center’s site states. “Through the sharing of the Gospel and Biblical truth, lives are being changed.”

According to Florida Department of State paperwork, the Center was first incorporated in September 2002 as Care Net of Sarasota. Four months later, the organization became the HeartLink Medical Pregnancy Center, then changed its name again four months later, becoming the Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center. Despite the name shuffle, the Center has maintained its ties to Care Net, a national network of 1,000-plus crisis pregnancy centers that exist to dissuade women from having abortions. The Center’s Bee Ridge sign calls the organization a Care Net “Member,” and its website lists Care Net as an “Affiliation.”

“The ultimate aim of Care Net and its network of pregnancy centers is to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ in both word and deed,” reads Care Net’s website. “As a result, the hearts of women and men are being changed by Christ’s love. In addition, those struggling with past abortions are finding God’s healing and forgiveness.”

In pursuing its religious goals, Care Net has come under fire for telling women there are connections between abortion and breast cancer, claims medical experts and congressional investigators have called false.

In 2003, a National Cancer Institute panel “concluded that having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.” That doesn’t stop the Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center from claiming on its website that “reputable studies suggest” that women who undergo abortions face a 50% increase in breast cancer risk. The footnoted source for that claim? A pamphlet titled, “You Have a Right to Know,” which was produced by Missouri’s Easton Publishing Co., according to the site.

But “We no longer publish pro-life literature,” says Easton owner Carolyn Landwehr. According to her, Easton put together “You Have a Right to Know” in the late ’80s or early ’90s, well before the National Cancer Institute convened its panel.

Landwehr says Easton — which now focuses on publishing greeting cards — sold the rights to its anti-abortion pamphlets years ago, to Arizona’s Heritage House ’76, which now publishes “You Have a Right to Know.” The pamphlet’s breast cancer claims are sourced to two articles published in 1994 and 1995, as well as a 2007 pamphlet itself published by Heritage House.

Despite the breast cancer misinformation, the Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center benefits from taxpayer support. Each year for the past seven years, the Florida Legislature has allotted $2 million for crisis pregnancy centers through the Florida Pregnancy Support Services Program. The Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center is a participant through an organization called the Florida Pregnancy Care Network. The Florida Department of Health, which administers the CPC program, relies on the Pregnancy Care Network itself to oversee the centers that receive taxpayer money. The Center declined to tell the News Leader how much state money it has received. According to the Department of Health, the state had given the Center $113,512.50 as of May 16.

“We belive that all centers should offer honest and accurate information with clients,” says Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. While Zdravecky says she doesn’t have enough concrete information about the Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center to comment on its practices, overall, Planned Parenthood is concerned that CPCs “aren’t offering a full range of medically accurate information.”

“They’re not licensed. Oftentimes they have no medical staff,” Zdravecky says. “Women who go there are given medically inaccurate information. And they also do some intimidation.” Planned Parenthood objects to taxpayer dollars going “to support organizations that aren’t engaging in correct public healh practices,” Zdravecky says.

In 2008, the Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center added a new name to its board of directors: Joni Kovach. Kovach’s husband: Frank Kovach, a Sarasota County School Board member first elected in 2000.

“My wife’s on the board and I support their mission,” says Frank Kovach, when asked about the extent of his relationship with the Center. What’s his perspective on the alleged links between abortion and breast cancer? “I really don’t have one,” he says. “My wife’s on the board and I support her and I support the Center.”

In 2004, when the School Board considered blocking Planned Parenthood from providing sex education materials and lessons to county schools, Kovach supported the ban, saying he opposed teaching contraceptive use in classrooms.

“I don’t know that the state curriculum says bring in condoms and show kids how to use them,” he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “That’s where the community needs to come in and be heard.”

The board eventually accepted a compromise that allows Planned Parenthood to participate in the lessons if invited by a teacher, and the policy allows students to opt out. But the new sex education guidelines also “encourage[d] teachers to use a video made by a woman with ties to anti-abortion groups,” according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which reported that the video was first given to school district staff by Joni Kovach.

When asked whether his wife’s role on the Center’s board has affected his decisions on school matters, Frank Kovach says, “No. It hasn’t.”

Frank Kovach has supported the Center in recent years, participating in a May 2011 “Golf Marathon” with his wife. In 2004, Kovach’s re-election campaign gave $500 to the Center, described as “charity” on campaign finance paperwork filed with Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent.

When contacted by the News Leader, a representative from the Sarasota Medical Pregnancy Center asked us to email our questions. The organization did not respond to our list of queries, which included requests for more information about the Kovaches’ involvement with the Center. In an April email (given to the News Leader by the Department of Health), Florida Pregnancy Care Network Senior Contract Manager Janise DeVore instructed the Network’s affiliated CPCs to not interact with the media and to direct “all inquiries … to the Florida Department of Health.”

Last June, Frank Kovach officially announced that he is seeking re-election. Does Zdravecky find Kovach’s affiliation problematic? “I think that the votes that public officials take are reflective of their personal views rather than what’s best for the public health,” she says. “It bears watching for sure.”