NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Anti-abortion centers across the country are receiving tens of millions of dollars in tax dollars to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies, a nearly five-fold increase from a decade ago, a result of an effort often overlooked by most Republicans. driven states.
Non-profit organizations known as Crisis Pregnancy Centers are usually religiously affiliated and advise clients against having abortions as part of their free but limited services. This practice and the fact that they are generally not licensed as medical facilities has raised questions about whether it is appropriate to funnel so much taxpayer money.
An Associated Press tally based on state budget figures reveals nearly $89 million was allocated to such centers in a dozen states this fiscal year. A decade ago, annual program funding hovered around $17 million in about eight states.
Estimates of the number of abortions that have been prevented through these programs are unknown, as many states only require reports of the number of clients that have been served. Likewise, since abortion rates have been declining in the United States for years, there is no way of knowing to what extent pregnancy centers have played a role.
Trying to figure out exactly how many pregnancy centers are getting taxpayer money is also difficult because each state has a different system for distributing the money.
“It’s bad governance. We’re supposed to be watching our taxpayers’ money and we don’t know where the money is going,” said Julie von Haefen, a Democratic state representative from North Carolina, who has sent millions in public money to the pregnancy centers. “These clinics do not provide medical care. They act like they do, but they don’t.
What is clear is that taxpayer funding for the centers has increased in recent years as more Republican-led states have passed legislation severely limiting access to abortion.
The centers have also been accused of providing misleading information about abortion and contraception – for example, suggesting that abortion leads to mental health problems or breast cancer.
“What we found is that they provide misleading information about the risks of abortion and don’t provide the true prevalence of when it happens because abortion is quite safe,” said Andrea Swartzendruber , a professor of public health at the University of Georgia who has helped map the location of pregnancy crisis centers nationwide. “They will claim that abortion will lead to breast cancer, when in fact it does not. Or they will say abortion leads to PTSD abortion. They constitute this post-abortion syndrome.
Pregnancy centers often pop up near abortion clinics in an effort to keep pregnant women away.
Supporters hope to increase the number of centers if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down or significantly restricts abortion rights in a case to be decided later this year.
That momentum is already building in Texas, where a state law that effectively bans abortion at about six weeks — before many women know they’re pregnant — has been in effect since September. State lawmakers recently gave a big funding boost to programs that provide alternatives to abortion, committing $100 million over the next two years.
Programs in Texas and other states typically offer parenting skills counseling and classes, as well as clothing and food. Proponents argue that these are essential social services available to women who would otherwise remain pregnant but were unaware of the help they might receive.
“We’ve seen women still consistently seeking resources and services,” said Chelsey Youman, Texas state director and national legislative counsel for the Human Coalition, one of the alternatives program’s main contractors. state abortion. “Women say, ‘Okay, abortion is not available after my child has a heartbeat, so what’s going on here?’ »
The new law, Youman said, has helped refocus the efforts of crisis pregnancy centers on women who have accepted the new restrictions and need help, as well as those who are reluctant to cross state lines. to have an abortion.
Most centers offer pregnancy tests and advice related to pregnancy. Some also offer limited medical services like ultrasounds. Since the centers are not licensed healthcare facilities, they are exempt from certain government regulations, such as minimum staffing levels.
Last year, Tennessee lawmakers allocated funds for several ultrasound machines to be placed in pregnancy centers. A center’s website includes a disclaimer stating that any information provided “is an educational service and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional and/or medical advice.”
At a recent unveiling of an ultrasound machine in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles south of Nashville, Republican Gov. Bill Lee and anti-abortion supporters said the state-funded purchase was key to influencing patients considering the procedure.
“It’s really about serving women who are having a crisis and want information,” Lee said.
The first state to adopt a formal abortion alternatives program was Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s. Funding grew out of an agreement in the Legislature between abortion rights supporters and opponents. to abortion.
Then-Governor. Robert P. Casey, an anti-abortion Democrat, signed into law funding for the crisis pregnancy center, just a year after his administration battled in the Supreme Court to win a landmark 1991 ruling allowing states to tax restrictions on abortion.
As part of the agreement, Pennsylvania began subsidizing the program to appease opponents of a preexisting program that subsidized Planned Parenthood services for women’s health. Republican majorities in the Legislature have enforced the agreement ever since, including for the past eight years under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who supports abortion rights. He received $7.2 million in the current fiscal year.
If the money for the program was cut from the budget, “then we would also remove that line item that goes to Planned Parenthood,” said state Rep. Kathy Rapp, a Republican who chairs the House Health Committee. .
In 2001, Pennsylvania also became the first state to receive approval to use $1 million from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to help fund pregnancy centers.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health then contracted a nonprofit organization known as Real Alternatives to oversee the program and distribute the money. The Pennsylvania-based group was eventually selected to oversee similar programs in Michigan and Indiana, where it says it has since served more than 408,000 women.
The Campaign for Accountability, a Washington-based watchdog organization, has launched several complaints against Real Alternatives, including allegations that the group has failed to achieve its own goals and misspent taxpayer dollars.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in 2017 that a lack of government oversight allowed Real Alternatives for decades to use taxpayer dollars to expand its work in other states. The State has instructed the group to change the way it remunerates subcontractors when renewing its contract.
In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer vetoed the state’s $700,000 annual budget for abortion alternatives in 2019 following a complaint from the Campaign for Accountability, which argued that Real Alternatives had only provided services to about 3,700 pregnant women instead of the 9,000 outlined in its contract. Michigan had funded the program since 2013.
“Michindiders deserve evidence-based, comprehensive family planning programs that support a person’s full range of reproductive health options,” Whitmer said in a letter to the watchdog group, thanking them for raising the issue. the complaint.
In Georgia, critics point to lax reporting requirements that require alternative abortion programs to disclose only their total expenditures and the amount of money distributed to providers.
Despite transparency concerns, pushes to expand alternative programs continue across the country.
Arizona does not have a formal abortion alternatives program, but in 2019 lawmakers set aside $2.5 million over three years to develop a hotline designed to steer pregnant women away from abortions.
In Tennessee, the GOP supermajority in the Legislature recently approved $3 million for the Human Coalition to set up call centers serving as “virtual clinics” in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville. Their purpose is to refer people to pregnancy centers or government services.
Arkansas is the first state to require patients seeking an abortion to first call an information hotline to inquire about possible pregnancy assistance before they can undergo the procedure. The program is expected to be implemented in 2023.
Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio and Oklahoma have all funded crisis pregnancy centers for years. But no state has acted with more ambition than Texas.
In 2005, Texas created its own program with $5 million taken from its federal welfare funds, allowing a variety of nonprofit organizations to apply for grants. It grew rapidly under the Republican-controlled legislature as struggling pregnancy centers, adoption agencies and maternity hospitals clamored for more money.
In 2020, the state’s abortion alternatives contractors provided approximately 1 million goods such as diapers and food, gave 331,000 counseling sessions, taught 314,000 parenting classes, conducted 217,800 referrals to government assistance programs and provided 56 adoption services, according to the latest annual report.
This year, Texas lawmakers committed a record $100 million in state tax dollars to fund the project over the next two years.
State Representative Debra Howard said the money could be better spent on state-supervised women’s health programs that offer annual exams, disease screenings and family planning services.
“The exponential increase in funding is unprecedented,” the Austin Democrat said. “It’s definitely not something we’ve seen for other programs that fall into the women’s health category.”
Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.