The rising power of crisis pregnancy centers

Posted on: February 22nd, 2012 by Sofia Resnick 3 Comments

For the average crisis pregnancy center, each abortion stopped is counted as a victory in what is often described, by both sides of the abortion-rights debate, as a war. And while unhappily pregnant women tend to seek out abortion clinics, crisis pregnancy centers tend to seek out those unhappily pregnant women.

These centers use various methods to attract women facing unplanned pregnancies, such as offering free pregnancy tests, locating next to abortion clinics, advertising for abortion services, and intercepting online searches for abortion on the Web.

But an emerging trend is for states to push women through these centers’ doors as part of new legislation that increases waiting times and mandates pre-abortion ultrasounds, something CPCs increasingly offer.

Last year, South Dakota passed a controversial anti-abortion law requiring women to visit anti-abortion pregnancy centers for counseling before they can receive an abortion. A federal judge blocked the law — which also mandated a 72-hour waiting period –after Planned Parenthood sued the state on the grounds that the law created an unconstitutional burden on a woman’s right to an abortion. On Wednesday, a state Senate committee is scheduled to hear a revised version of the bill, which still requires women to seek counseling at anti-abortion pregnancy centers but demands that the counselors be licensed.

Another anti-abortion law in Texas, which recently went into effect after surviving the majority of legal challenges lodged against it, provides women wanting to have an abortion with a list of state-sanctioned places to obtain a sonogram, a list that includes crisis pregnancy centers.

South Dakota and Texas are just two states where CPCs are slowly gaining more political power, taxpayer funding, and legitimacy from lawmakers. And with the growing movement of state legislatures adopting abortion laws that require women to first undergo an ultrasound, it is likely that these centers will begin to play an even bigger role in a woman’s unplanned pregnancy.

‘Pregnancy Resource Center Month’

In the U.S., there are approximately 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers, the bulk of which are affiliated with one of three CPC networks: Heartbeat International, Care Net, and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates. Each has ties to political organizations that have lobbied for anti-abortion legislation.

A legislative trend sweeping the country is the enactment of resolutions that “honor” crisis pregnancy centers. Last month, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that declared January “Pregnancy Resource Center Month” and commended “the compassionate work of the volunteers and staff at Florida’s pregnancy resource centers.” Ohio’s legislature passed similar legislation last month.

Several states passed pro-CPC resolutions last year, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Oklahoma passed a pro-CPC resolution in 2010.

In these resolutions, much of the language was lifted straight from model legislation (PDF) developed by Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion policy group based in Washington, D.C. AUL’s resolution calls for recognizing services these centers have provided to citizens for free – services like baby supplies, referrals for public services and anti-abortion counseling. But a key provision, which has generally made it into the states’ version of these resolutions, is:

That the [Legislature] disapproves of the actions of any national, state, or local groups attempting to prevent pregnancy care centers from effectively serving women and men facing unplanned pregnancies.

This provision subtly refers to efforts at national, state and local levels to regulate crisis pregnancy centers, in response to allegations that these centers sometimes mislead women about what services they offer and provide them with misinformation about abortion, pregnancy, and contraception.

For instance, in Washington state, legislation was introduced last year that would require CPCs to be explicit about what services they do and don’t offer. It would also prohibit these centers from withholding medical records, such as pregnancy test results, from clients. The bill text was partially influenced by a report (PDF) co-authored by women’s rights group Legal Voice and the policy arm of the Northwest Planned Parenthood affiliate. Undercover investigators documented evidence of CPCs withholding medical records. According to the report: “Care Net in Gig Harbor and Tacoma provided volunteers with paperwork stating that it had the right under RCW 70.02.090 to withhold a person’s medical records if the center reasonably believes the information will be used to obtain an abortion. Care Net in Puyallup provided paperwork stating that it would be ‘illegal’ for a patient to use medical records generated by Care Net for the purpose of ‘abortion or abortion-related services.’”

These measures have generally been unsuccessful. Ordinances requiring CPCs to post signage stating that they do not offer abortion services were overturned in Baltimore and New York. And a federal bill that would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to fine organizations that falsely advertise as resources for abortion services has been reintroduced into Congress every year since 2007 with little movement. A similar bill passed in San Francisco last year but is being challenged in federal court.

Another provision in AUL’s pro-CPC resolution model, which is featured in Ohio’s bill, could serve as a portal for crisis pregnancy centers to obtain public money:

That we encourage the Congress of the United States and other federal and state government agencies to grant pregnancy resource centers assistance for medical equipment and abstinence education in a manner that does not compromise the mission or religious integrity of these organizations.

It is a state version of a federal bill regularly reintroduced by U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), which would authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to allocate money for ultrasound equipment to tax-exempt organizations that provide free medical services to pregnant women – a classification that applies to most CPCs.

An (ultra)sound strategy

With more states mandating that women obtain sonograms sometimes 24 hours before a scheduled abortion, going to a crisis pregnancy center that will do the ultrasound for free is an attractive option, especially for women on a tight budget.

Speaking at a pro-life conference hosted by the D.C.-based Family Research Council last month, Karen Snuffer, the executive director of a group of Virginia-based pregnancy resource centers affiliated with Care Net, said her centers serve more than 17,000 women and their families annually and “provide $1.1 million in free goods and services, including 2,900 ultrasounds, free of charge, by medical professionals.”

“Like centers all around the country, Care Net PRCs represent hope to these women and their families, and we do that because we have access to many resources within the community,” Snuffer said.

An FRC study (PDF) of 1,969 crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S., found that in 2010, about 230,000 ultrasounds were performed – at no or very little charge to the client – at 1,000 centers, for an estimated total cost savings of $57.5 million. (To get this statistic, FRC estimated each ultrasound at $250.)

Founded in 1993, the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates was the first CPC network to promote ultrasounds in crisis pregnancy centers; ultrasounds were seen as a new, persuasive tool to talk women out of abortions. Additionally, centers that offered ultrasound services could now be considered medical centers, giving CPCs more legitimacy. Then, in 2004, Focus on the Family started the Option Ultrasound Program, which – in tandem with a medical consultant from NIFLA – provides funding grants to pregnancy centers to obtain ultrasound machines and convert their centers to medical-style clinics.

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