By Kenneth A. Harris of The Sentinel Staff
OCALA – Pinned to Dr. James Scott Pendergraft’s tie was the safe-sex message “Safety First.”
But Pendergraft’s tie tack took on a more literal meaning Wednesday as the Orlando physician announced the opening of Marion County’s first abortion clinic in nearly 10 years. The women’s center is in Ocala, where the last abortion clinic was twice firebombed in 1989.
Wearing a white shirt that concealed his bulletproof vest, Pendergraft told reporters he expects a “wholesome welcome” when the Ocala Women’s Center opens next week at 108 N. Pine Ave.
Plans for the women’s center, which also will offer gynecological exams and birth control, have been in the works for nearly a year amid opposition from local officials. Marion County commissioners, for example, urged Pendergraft to “reconsider” his plans.
“With respect to the proposed Ocala Women’s Center, we are a small, family-oriented community, relatively free from controversy of the kind this might create,” Marion County commissioners stated in an Oct. 8 letter.
Pendergraft said his surveys have shown a need for the clinic.
“We have gotten just as may positive letters as negative letters in the Ocala community,” Pendergraft said.
Two years ago, he squared off against elected leaders when Orlando officials tried to use city zoning laws to prevent second-trimester abortions at his Orlando Women’s Center, 1103 Lucerne Terrace. The doctor took the battle to court and won. The city settled his lawsuit for $325,000. Pendergraft has a second abortion clinic in Orlando – Epoc Clinic at 609 Virginia Drive.
“Abortion is a constitutional right,” Pendergraft said. “It’s a right between the doctor and the patient. No one should be able to intervene in that.”
The Ocala center, which will offer abortions up to 24 weeks, has security measures – which Pendergraft declined to discuss – to protect the staff and clients.
Pendergraft does not perform “partial-birth abortions,” but his announcement came a day after a federal judge temporarily stopped enforcement of a state law that imposed a prison term for doctors performing the procedure.
Ocala police Maj. Guy Howie said he does not expect any problems from anti-abortion groups.
“We’ve had meetings with the clinic and one of the right-to-life groups,” Howie said. “We’ve explained to them our position is neutral. Both have equal protection under the law.”
Fruitland Park resident Linda Rozar, who is founder of the conservative religious group Concerned Citizens of Florida, said she found the opening of the Ocala clinic “troubling.”
She said she does not endorse violence and counsels expectant mothers to consider adoption as an alternative.
“We don’t condone violence or any type of really offensive action concerning the people or the building structure,” Rozar said. “Our appeal is to the women.”
On two occasions between March and April 1989, fire ravaged the All Women’s Health Center in Ocala. The second fire on April 9 left the clinic in ruins. Arson was suspected, but the cases remain unsolved.
“We don’t expect any problems,” Pendergraft said. “What we do expect is some people showing their dislike to us being here.”