Barbara Zdravecky keeps Sun Tzu’s The Art of War on her coffee table, which might seem an odd choice for someone who has dedicated her life to women’s health. But in 22 years of leading Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, Zdravecky has become one of the country’s most influential advocates for women’s reproductive rights, fighting one battle after another. In 1998, 24 years after Roe v. Wade struck down laws prohibiting abortion in the United States, she braved death threats when she began abortion services in Sarasota. She has marched in Washington, with her young daughter for women’s reproductive rights; and, with Gloria Steinem by her side, she’s demonstrated against lawmakers in Tallahassee imposing new restrictions on abortion.
“I’ve had to be a warrior,” she says. “But you get pretty damn tired of getting thrown backwards.”
It is mid-September and Zdravecky, 63, has just returned from a two-week respite in Europe, spending much of her time in Slovenia, where her ancestors lived. She says the vacation came at a good time, as she was exhausted after completing the months-long process of merging the Orlando and Naples area Planned Parenthoods into the Sarasota organization.
But even as she visited relatives and toured Slovenia’s spectacular mountains and medieval castles, she was gearing up for a protracted battle. It’s one that is shaping up to be the toughest Planned Parenthood has faced and is even threatening the Sarasota-based organization’s long tradition of bipartisan support.
In early July, a national anti-abortion group released surreptitiously recorded videos of Planned Parenthood employees discussing fees for fetal tissue with actors posing as tissue procurers. The videos were edited to make it seem as though the Planned Parenthood employees were haggling over money.
“We were all taken aback,” says Zdravecky, who, as a member of Planned Parenthood’s national crisis team, knew about the videos before the story broke. Even though Florida’s Planned Parenthood affiliates do not collect fetal tissue (and less than 1 percent of all Planned Parenthoods nationally do), she says, “The videos were graphic and concerning.”
By the time Planned Parenthood analyzed the videos and pointed out the selective editing, political vitriol had blanketed the country.
Enraged Republicans threatened to shut down the federal government unless Congress defunded Planned Parenthood. During a CNN debate between Republican presidential candidates, Carly Fiorina compared Planned Parenthood abortion providers to murderers, describing “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” Numerous sources, including The New York Times, reported there was no such scene in any videos of Planned Parenthood procedures and noted that fetal tissue collection, which is critical in stem cell research aimed at fighting Parkinson’s and other diseases, has been legal since 1993. It is also legal to charge “reasonable” fees that cover the cost of collecting and donating fetal tissue; experts told the nonpartisan organization Politifact that Planned Parenthood’s fees seem to fall under those guidelines.
That didn’t defuse the controversy, nor did it keep Gov. Rick Scott from ordering the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration to scrutinize the state’s clinics. The state also accused Planned Parenthood of Southwest Florida of performing second-trimester abortions when it was licensed only to perform abortions for women in their first trimester of pregnancy. Zdravecky describes those charges as “trumped up by politicians” and says they ignore the state’s own regulations. In a blog, the Tampa Bay Times explained that in the charges, the state “described women who were about 13 weeks into their pregnancies as being second-trimester patients. But under state regulations, the second trimester begins at 14 weeks.”
As the controversy escalated, the Republican Party of Sarasota called for its members to join the protesters circling Planned Parenthood’s Central Avenue offices.
“They must be really afraid of us to be coming after us like that,” says Zdravecky, sitting back in one of the upholstered bucket chairs surrounding a glass coffee table in her office. “It’s the last gasp of mostly white male politicians, who are frightened that they’re losing their power, so they’re holding onto their power over women.”
Zdravecky is a Pilates-fit petite blonde with an angle-cut bob. She is wearing a crisp, light-pink cotton tailored shirt with a simple gold necklace, pants and low heels, an outfit that will look good on camera and carry her through work meetings and evening events and whatever the next crisis brings. Zdravecky’s schedule is crammed with meetings and conference calls, many of them dealing with lawyers. She says that since she returned from her vacation, the controversy over the videos and shoring up staff and supporters is consuming three-quarters of her time.
Zdravecky comes from a Catholic Slovenian family, who raised Zdravecky and her two siblings in Herminie, a Pennsylvania town that at the time had a few hundred, mostly Slovenian residents. Her great-grandparents immigrated in the 1900s to work in the coal mines. Zdravecky’s family became union leaders in the decades that followed. “That’s what helped my family rise into the middle class,” she says.
Zdravecky’s mother was the neighborhood matriarch, organizing parties and volunteering at St. Edward’s Catholic Church. After her children were grown, she became a social worker. Zdravecky went to Indiana University at Pennsylvania during a time when the country was embroiled in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement.
She quickly joined the fray, including traveling to Washington, D.C., with other college students to protest the war and sleeping under the Washington Monument. She says her college activism prepared her for the protests she would lead decades later.
Zdravecky’s family bore the shadow of a lack of legal access to birth control, and she feels that deeply. Both her grandmothers became pregnant as unwed teenagers. Her father’s parents were forced to marry, and her paternal grandfather committed suicide before her father was born. Zdravecky’s grandmother, Pauline, gave her daughter to her parents to raise and became a nurse, serving in a World War II MASH unit. Zdravecky’s mother didn’t find out that her sister was really her mother until she graduated from high school.
“Pauline never talked to my mother about it,” she says. “Lives are altered and children suffer” when they have no control over their reproductive lives, she says.
With a degree in social work, Zdravecky followed a friend to Manatee County. She found a job as a state social worker, making home visits in some of the poorest communities in Southwest Florida, including homes where a white woman had never visited before.
“There were African-Americans living in abject poverty,” she says. “People sitting on broken furniture.”
Zdravecky then joined the Manatee County Community Mental Health Center, a place she describes as like the mental ward in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but not as nice.” Medication was not as advanced as it is now in treating mental illness. “It was rough,” she says. “I was young, inexperienced and dealing with hardcore addicts and psychotics.”
She became adept at remaining cool and composed in a violent environment. “It was an old facility that couldn’t handle the clients we had,” she says. “I ended up in the emergency room a lot of times. [Patients were] picking me up and throwing me; I was bitten by patients.”
She earned a nursing degree at Manatee Community College and spent a decade as the head of psychiatric nursing at Manatee Memorial Hospital. “Somehow, I always ended up in charge of something,” Zdravecky says.
She took a leave of absence to follow a boyfriend to Key West in the mid-1980s as the AIDS crisis hit. In Key West, Zdravecky worked for a hospice, caring for dying people, mostly men, many who were disowned by their families. Working with vulnerable men would later lead her to include men in Planned Parenthood’s clinics.
After a year, she left the boyfriend and returned to Manatee Memorial Hospital, where she focused on women’s health. There, she says, she found her true passion.
She helped start the hospital’s family birthing center, its mammography center and a daycare for sick children. Her work entailed lobbying for the hospital association in Tallahassee. She also volunteered with the League of Women Voters and Planned Parenthood and became a founding board member of the Women’s Resource Center. During this period, she married and had her daughter; she divorced a few years later.
When the former Planned Parenthood CEO decided to leave in 1993, the search committee contacted her.
All of her experiences protesting injustice, lobbying, working with women’s health and impoverished minorities had equipped her with the tools she would need to lead the organization.
Friends and people who know Zdravecky call her “single-minded,” “focused” and “fearless.” She’s also known for her sense of humor. And although she acknowledges that she has helped to build one of the country’s strongest Planned Parenthood affiliates, she is quick to share the credit.
“We have an unbelievable board; our doctors and clinicians put their lives on the line,” she says. “And our employees are passionate about their work. You have to be.”
Still, she’s a rock star when she takes the stage at the annual dinner, one of the hottest social tickets of the season, attended by about 500 people, including Republican and Democratic civic leaders, philanthropists and well-heeled supporters. She receives standing applause when she speaks.
Since 1966, when an influential group of Republican women started the local chapter of Planned Parenthood in the basement of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the organization has enjoyed enthusiastic support from a broad swath of the community.
An article published in this magazine described the scene at the local organization’s 40th anniversary celebration dinner a few years back.
“At the Ruby gala, big names were everywhere: Cornelia Matson in regal purple, Lee Peterson, Nancy Reinheimer, Betty Schoenbaum, Anita Holec, Caren Lobo, Flori Roberts, Leila Gompertz—too many to name. And husbands galore! Many politicos—Mayor Mary Anne Servian, former Mayor Mollie Cardamone, Commissioner Ken Shelin, School Board members John Lewis and Carol Todd, County Commissioner Nora Patterson and Betty Castor. Alex Sink and other candidates for office were also there.”
During Zdravecky’s years at the helm of Planned Parenthood, the organization has tripled the number of patients it serves in Southwest Florida to about 30,000 and begun offering health services, including HIV and testicular and prostate cancer testing, to men. It also opened health centers in Manatee and St. Petersburg and expanded clinics in Tampa, including providing abortion services there for the first time. Zdravecky also expanded a teen theater program, The Source, which presents original productions dealing with sexuality, contraception and other issues teens grapple with; the group has performed at local high schools and around the world and was invited to present one of its short films at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Zdravecky raised $10 million six years ago to build a call center, improve clinics and build a three-story, 23,000-square-foot administrative hub in the Rosemary District, moving everyone out of cramped quarters on Prospect Street. Today patients from teens to senior citizens come to modern facilities with ample parking. Women receive annual pelvic and breast exams and can obtain low-cost IUDs, birth control pills and condoms as well as abortions.
In addition to offering abortions at the clinic, Zdravecky, who has been open about her own choice to have an abortion years ago, worked with the national Planned Parenthood to overcome fierce opposition to bring abortion by pill, Mifepristone, to American women. It is now used by about one-third of the women who want to end their pregnancy in the first trimester.
Planned Parenthood’s national president, Cecile Richards, named Zdravecky CEO of the Year in 2006; and this year, when Planned Parenthood affiliates in Orlando and Naples decided to merge with Sarasota, she was chosen to lead the new corporate entity. She had to marry three organizations, each with its own culture, procedures and technology. Zdravecky now oversees a $16.5 million budget, 180 employees and a dozen clinics in 22 counties.
On July 1, the same day the merger went into effect, the state initiated new abortion restrictions. Florida law already required women to undergo (and pay for) an ultrasound before receiving an abortion. The new law requires them to wait 24 hours after receiving the results of the ultrasound before they can undergo an abortion. Opponents protested that the ultrasound and the new waiting period place an undue burden on women, especially the poor, who often have to travel long distances to legally end their pregnancies. Nine days later, the fetal tissue video story broke.
For years, opposition has energized Zdravecky, say people who know her well.
“She’s like a general riding into battle,” says Felice Schulaner, a board vice chair, who worked in management for major U.S. corporations, including Coach, before moving to Sarasota in 2007. “I worked with incredible CEOs and I’d put her next to any of them,” she says.
“There is nobody I would rather follow into battle than Barbara,” says Planned Parenthood’s national president Richards. “She is a fierce, fearless leader and champion for reproductive healthcare for women, men and young people.”
After the video crisis hit, says Schulaner, “She did a full debrief [to the board] so all of us [felt] part of what is going on and [were] sufficiently knowledgeable to do what we are committed to doing.” Zdravecky also held multiple meetings and conference calls with employees. Some employees talked about nasty messages from family and friends and on their Facebook pages. Zdravecky comforted a crying young woman whose mother had disowned her because of her job.
“You have to give your team all the information you have,” Zdravecky says. “And you have to provide talking points. We have followed all the laws and have never been cited by the state.”
Most of all, she says, “We have to care for the [patients] who depend on us. They are students, women working two jobs to support their families. They’re not checking Politico every day.”
She is troubled by the national pressure to erode abortion rights and limit women’s—especially poor women’s—access to health care. She points to Texas, which passed a law requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital, effectively eliminating many clinics. That measure found its way into Florida House Bill 147, which failed, but it’s likely to resurface this legislative session. Florida, she says, is quickly headed towards Texas as one of the states with the most abortion restrictions.
And she is concerned about the rising Republican opposition to Planned Parenthood in her own back yard. She says she was “surprised and disappointed” that the local Republican party called for its members to join recent protests in front of the clinic. Protesters showed up with bullhorns and “Baby Killer” signs.
“We need to demand they stop using our tax dollars to fund this organization,” Christian Ziegler, a local Republican Party leader and a state committeeman, told the media. Weeks later, a videotape of the protest remained on the Sarasota Republican Party’s Facebook page.
“This is the worst insult we’ve had in the years I’ve been here,” Zdravecky says. “This was planned to be a grand assault and it has been.”
In another sign of local Republicans distancing themselves from the cause that many have supported in the past, some have started attacking Nora Patterson, a former Sarasota County Commissioner now running for Senate District 23 against State Rep. Greg Steube and former State Rep. Doug Holder in the Republican primary, for her former chairmanship of Planned Parenthood and her unflinching support over the years.
A website run by conservative activist Rich Swier leads the attacks on Patterson. A picture of Patterson is posted next to a Planned Parenthood logo covered in dripping blood.
But dismaying as the recent Republican attacks have been to Zdravecky, they haven’t quenched her warrior spirit.
“We are not going to let these protests intimidate us,” she says, her gaze level and direct. She notes that the country pivoted quickly on gay marriage, and it could do the same on what she characterizes as “war against women” being waged by mostly white, male conservatives.
“We will fight back against this harassment intended to keep us from serving the health care needs of Florida women,” she says. “We have lost a few battles recently, but I’m hopeful we will win the war.”