Sonogram law widens the door to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers
Clustered in the language of Texas’ controversial pre-abortion sonogram law, a small yet significant clause gives further evidence to critics that the legislation isn’t merely about medical assistance to women, but rather an ideological attempt by some state lawmakers to deter women from having abortions. Alongside the requirement women in Texas must receive ultrasounds before seeking abortions, the newly enacted sonogram law also carries with it a stipulation that ushers pregnant women to non-medical, faith-based anti-abortion clinics.
Under the law, abortion doctors are required to direct women to a “comprehensive” list of agencies in the state that offer free sonograms to pregnant women but that “do not affiliate with, refer to or provide abortion related services.” The rule builds upon the standing 2003 “Woman’s Right to Know” Act, which requires abortion providers give patients a pamphlet graphically depicting the stages of gestation.
By virtue of the new law’s specifications, the listing– provided by the Department of State Health Services– rules out centers like Planned Parenthood and exclusively includes unregulated, unlicensed crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). The 10-page directory of agencies, titled “A Woman’s Right to Know Sonogram List,” catalogs pregnancy resource centers like Care Net Pregnancy Center of Northwest in Houston, Pregnancy Care Center in San Antonio and Austin LifeCare, the subject of a Texas Independent investigation for mixing religious and educational materials and making overt references to Christianity during an informational training session.
The Texas sonogram law explicitly states that the physician performing the abortion (or an agent of the physician who is also a nationally certified sonographer) are the only qualified people to conduct the ultrasound prior to the abortion. Nonetheless the law requires women to be directed to non-medical, unlicensed clinics before terminating their pregnancies.
After undergoing a handful of modifications during the legislative session, including referring women to their own physicians for an ultrasound, at the end conservative legislators pushed the list of CPCs into the final version of the bill. At the time, House author Rep. Sid Miller (R-Stephenville) praised pregnancy resource centers, saying they are “a real asset to our community.” CPCs are not only unlicensed centers that usually fail to provide any medical services, but have a stated mission to deter women from having abortions.
“This is one more undisguised attempt by the Texas Legislature to direct women to CPCs, where they will be dissuaded from seeking an abortion,” said Sarah Cleveland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “And it’s very clear that the intent of this version, a compromise decided by anti-choice legislators, was made to strengthen their conservative base.”
The subtle but telling requirement is indicative of Gov. Rick Perry’s and the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature’s ideological crusade against Planned Parenthood and basic women’s healthcare, argues Cleveland. While slashing $74 million from regulated, affordable family planning centers like Planned Parenthood– a move that has led to lack of access for thousands of minority and low-income women all across Texas– the Legislature simultaneously pumped $300,000 into the $8 million per biennium it already sets aside for CPC funding, the American Independent reported.
Lawmakers increased funding to CPCs despite several criticisms by organizations like NARAL that found more than half of CPCs provided prayer or religious counseling, both of which violate federal Charitable Choice Act regulations and rules in the state program administered by state contractor of the CPC program, Texas Pregnancy Care Network (TPCN).
Furthermore, the information given to pregnant women isn’t always accurate– the majority of Texas CPCs dispense erroneous data, according to NARAL. During its 2009 visits, the reproductive rights group found several instances of medical inaccuracy, such as touting a suggested link between abortion and breast cancer (a correlation not validated by the National Cancer Institute), overstating fictional “post-abortion stress syndrome,” (not recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) or the American Psychiatric Association) and claiming that condoms fail to effectively prevent the spread of STDs.
Despite the influx of state dollars, CPCs remain removed from the purview of state regulators. While the Texas Department of State Health Services conducts stringent and random annual reviews of abortion facility clinics, they do not inspect CPCs. Between 2006 and 2010, DSHS has never conducted an on-site evaluation of the program that oversees the centers, the Texas Independent previously reported. Moreover, almost 25 percent of CPCs investigated employed at least one counselor (volunteers who aren’t obligated to be licensed or supervised) who was not vetted by the Department of Public Safety and Family Protective Services.
Instead, CPCs are inspected by the state contractor that allocates funding for the centers, a questionable relationship some lawmakers and groups suggest is a direct conflict-of-interest. And even with pre-announced site visits, evaluators found at least one violation during more than half of their inspections.
The new law brings increased regulation to the state’s roughly 40 abortion clinics, says DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams. During the yearly reviews, state inspectors will additionally be checking with staff via interviews and paperwork to see if the clinics are in compliance.
“I can’t speak for all women but if a medical doctor hands me a list of clinics, I would assume they are licensed medical facilities, not unregulated ‘counseling centers,’” said Cleveland. “This is one of the most nefarious parts of the bill, it makes it very easy for women to misinterpret.”
“There is something inherently problematic about our state mandating women receive referrals to non-medical facilities for medical services,” she said. “It’s obvious that sending women to CPCs is raw, emotional manipulation.”
Joe Pojman of Texas Alliance for Life thinks otherwise. The anti-abortion group lobbied heavily on behalf of the sonogram law and contends they were instrumental in its formation and passage. Pojman says his organization worked with the Senate and House authors to craft the bill’s language, provided testimony and consulted with the governor’s office.
Pojman isn’t shy to conceal one of TAL’s central goals during the most recent legislative session– the defunding of Planned Parenthood. He says the sonogram law’s requirement directing women to CPCs ensures they are given the facts at a site removed from facilities that generate “very high profits” from abortions, a procedure they see as, “a method of birth control.”
“The provision gives women the opportunity to receive a free sonogram at an agency that does not have a financial interest in performing an abortion,” said Pojman, referring to Planned Parenthood. “The purpose of the list is to make sure women can get unbiased information from a neutral source that doesn’t take part in the ‘selling of abortion.’”
Although conservative and anti-choice groups rallied behind massive cuts to family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood this legislative session with the aim to curb abortions, state dollars are forbidden from being directed to fund abortions. According to a recent annual report, abortion services accounted for just 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s total services nationwide, with the majority of services being STD testing, cancer screenings/prevention and contraception.
Calls placed by the Texas Independent to listed pregnancy resource centers in Houston, Austin and Dallas showed representatives were largely unaware they were on such a list, but expressed their excitement at the prospect of “informing” women before they have abortions.
“That’s really great to hear,” said Mary Jane Fogerty, executive director of two faith-based Dallas Pregnancy Resource Centers. “We will address her needs and take time to explain all her options. That way she can make a truly informed decision and not a rushed one.”
“Other” options include parenting and adoption, said Fogerty, who stressed a woman’s religious and spiritual background will most certainly play a part in the counseling session.