(WOMENSENEWS)--Crisis pregnancy centers allied with conservative religious groups are increasingly becoming organizing bases and funnels for money to extend anti-abortion networks, critics claim. As these religiously based and evangelical outposts move to secure more public resources for their anti-abortion efforts, new but fundamental questions arise about the separation of church and state.
With startling success in recent months, crisis pregnancy centers have commanded new streams of funding, including federal government abstinence education dollars, sales of state-sponsored specialty license plates, the disbursal of discretionary state funds and direct funding to "abortion alternatives" in some states.
Integral to their public support is the name--crisis pregnancy center--which connotes that the organizations offer assistance to pregnant women. However, at least some of the centers appear to be exploiting the vulnerability of women with unwanted pregnancies to convert them to fundamentalist Christianity.
However, some women's rights activists are becoming increasingly concerned that the centers receiving government funds are actually promoting religious beliefs.
Joined by three other organizations, the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women protested its state's financial support to crisis pregnancy centers earlier this month. Demonstrators convened in Charlottesville, Richmond, Virginia Beach, Arlington and Falls Church.
"Crisis pregnancy centers use scare tactics and false information. This seemingly 'very nice thing' is actually a well-funded attempt to limit women's reproductive rights," said Connie Hannah, president of Virginia NOW.
Crisis pregnancy centers have increased in number and boldness, reflecting the strength of the anti-abortion movement. In 1999 the Family Research Council, a powerful anti-abortion lobbying organization, boasted of more crisis pregnancy centers than abortion clinics nationwide. An international database lists 3,114 U.S. facilities, including a small number of maternity homes.
By contrast, there were only 869 abortion clinics at the last count in 1996 by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice policy center in New York, and an additional 470 physician offices that offer abortion services. Kansas, which has three abortion clinics, has 53 listings for crisis pregnancy centers.
In the past year, $170,000 of the funds allocated to Virginia for women's health, education and safety programs were directed to 18 crisis pregnancy centers in the state, at the designation of former Virginia State Attorney Mark Earley, now a gubernatorial candidate. The money was the state's share of a $34 million nationwide price-fixing settlement with Nine West, a women's shoe manufacturer.
Boundaries Between Church and State Blurred
Hundreds of thousands of the shoe settlement dollars also went to crisis pregnancy centers in South Carolina and Nebraska. The designations were approved by a federal district court judge, Barrington Parker, in White Plains, N.Y. Parker has since been nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President George W. Bush.
At least three of the designated fund recipients in Virginia advertise as Christian or evangelical ministries. Others also describe themselves as ministries.
With their receipt of government funding, many are concerned that the boundaries between church and state have been blurred.
"If the message is based on a religious perspective, that could be a problem," said Marcia Beauchamp, religious freedoms program coordinator for The Freedom Forum, an organization devoted to First Amendment, free speech, free association and free assembly concerns.
"It depends on whether the money that comes from the government is earmarked for non-proselytizing activity," Beauchamp said. "It depends on how they separate the social services and the government funding from the religious mission. The courts have followed the money in a lot of cases to determine whether there is a church-state violation. They have to keep those missions separate to keep the government funding.
"If the government funding supports the religious proselytizing of a religious institution, that is clearly unconstitutional," Beauchamp added.
Centers Are Example of Friendship Evangelism
Yet based on the centers' description of themselves and other indications, it appears that religious proselytizing is at the heart of most of the 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers across the country, and the essential service they are delivering appears to be a religious anti-abortion message.
"The most rewarding thing for me personally is when I see a woman not only choose to carry her child, but also choose to make Jesus as the Lord and Savior of her life," said Sally Rosiek on an October 17 broadcast by Focus on the Family, a religious right anti-abortion organization. Rosiek is the director of a crisis pregnancy center.
"So it's evangelical in nature?" asked host James Dobson, the group's president. "It certainly is," Rosiek bragged. "The salvation rate for crisis pregnancy centers is higher than churches." It is, she said, "friendship evangelism."
Julie Parton, director of the Crisis Pregnancy Ministry for Focus on the Family, said on its Focus on the Family broadcast that the anti-abortion groups have produced a guide in response to criticism that they were not providing social or medical services.
The publication urges centers to sharpen their policies and trust the Lord. "It's about saving lives physically and spiritually for all eternity," she said.
Care Net, an umbrella group of more than 600 crisis pregnancy centers, which promises "Acceptance, Love, Someone Who Will Listen," operates under the legal name of "The Christian Action Council, Education and Ministry Fund Inc.," according to its federal tax forms for 1999, the most recent available, where it reported an annual income of $1.62 million. A letter from President Mike Reid begins, "Greetings to you in the strong name of Jesus!" and it goes on about the need "to press forward with our lives for the glory of God."
Care Net declined to respond to requests for an interview.
In-person encounters are much the same.
Loretta Ullrich, a Virginia Tech student active with Virginia NOW posed as a client to visit a crisis pregnancy center in a small office building in Christianburg, Va. She reports the counselor there was less interested in Ullrich's potential pregnancy than in knowing whether she considered herself to be a Christian and if the terrorist events of Sept. 11 had made her think about the "sanctity of life."
Despite the religious nature of the majority of crisis pregnancy centers, several are among the recipients of abstinence education grants awarded in July by Tommy G. Thompson, U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services, under a new $17.1 million community-based abstinence education program.
Included, for example, was a $500,000 grant to Pregnancy Decision Health Centers in Columbus, Ohio, a $254,530 grant to AAA Women's Services Inc. in Chattanooga, Tenn., and $76,913 to The Crisis Pregnancy Centers of Greater Phoenix, Ariz. Each is listed on a crisis pregnancy center database maintained by Heartbeat International, a self-described "life-saving ministry."
Federal abstinence-only education funds delivered to the states for distribution in prior years also found their way to crisis pregnancy centers in 11 states, according to an extensive 15-month survey of a $50 million, 1998 program by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Crisis Centers Also Funded by Specialty Vehicle License Plates
Other government support is being directed to crisis pregnancy centers through a campaign for specialty motor vehicle license plates. In September, South Carolina became the third state to enact a "Choose Life" car tag, with sales proceeds to go to crisis pregnancy centers or alternatives to abortion, although groups that make referrals for, counsel or provide abortions may not apply. Florida and Louisiana passed similar laws earlier. All three are under challenge in court by pro-choice or civil liberties groups.
Florida was permitted to sell the plates anyhow, and the first year of sales, ending in August 2001, raised half a million dollars for crisis pregnancy centers from a $20 per tag surcharge. In September, a Melbourne, Fla., crisis pregnancy center became one of the first grantees, with an award of $15,000.
Another 23 license plate bills were introduced in 2001, eight with clauses that would have generated funding for crisis pregnancy centers, according to NARAL, an abortion-rights advocacy organization.
Choose Life Inc., a national organization, distributes model legislation.
Other states have been more direct. Pennsylvania and Missouri simply passed laws in 2001 providing funding to crisis pregnancy centers as "alternatives to abortion," according to NARAL. In addition, Virginia passed a tax refund law benefiting crisis pregnancy centers, and North Dakota passed a law requiring the study of a plan for supporting alternatives to abortion. Other legislation passed in two states provided government legitimacy to crisis pregnancy centers by designating them "safe havens" for infants who are abandoned by their parents.
In the traditional model of operation, pregnancy care centers--as "pro-life" groups prefer to call them today--are staffed by nonmedical personnel, mostly volunteers. Many centers locate near abortion clinics and use vague-sounding but women-friendly names. The "AAA Women for Choice" in Manassas, Va., is actually a division of the American Life League, a fiercely anti-abortion, anti-contraception lobbying and policy group that also is devoted to the elimination of Planned Parenthood.
With offers of free pregnancy tests or layettes, crisis pregnancy centers try to attract needy pregnant women, especially the young, pro-choice advocates say. Once inside, the women are isolated and presented with anti-abortion literature, films or rhetoric. Since "abortion-vulnerable" women are the prime targets of the centers, women with desired pregnancies or care needs may find little interest from counselors. Information about prenatal care can be sparse, pro-choice advocates claim.
Women Complain of Deceptive Advertising, Pressure, Trauma--No Layettes
Virtually all centers refuse to offer birth control information and pills. Critics of the centers say that standard brochures make incorrect statements about the dangers of abortion, claiming it causes breast cancer, severe emotional trauma or sterility. One leaflet picked up by Ullrich, the NOW member, asserted that the legalization of abortion was not responsible for reducing abortion-related deaths.
Women have complained over the years about undue pressure, deceptive advertising, emotional trauma, breach of promised confidentiality and coercion to sign adoption papers. From 1983 to 1996, crisis pregnancy centers were the subject of 19 lawsuits in nine states, with judges finding that the centers had acted inappropriately at least a dozen times.
"They prey on women and women are the victims," said Vicky Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation in Washington, D.C., the largest membership organization for abortion clinics. "Anti-abortion groups are putting a lot of effort into this now."
At the same time, the centers are attempting new strategies to attract pregnant women.
Adding sonogram equipment, explained one center director, helps a woman bond with the fetus. Equipment costs $20,000 to $25,000. Approximately 200 pregnancy centers have converted to medical clinics, according to Thomas Glessner, president of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates in Virginia, which helps centers qualify for certification, equipment and insurance. "It's definitely the trend. Good, strong centers are moving in this direction," said Glessner.
Bemoaning that pregnancy tests no longer have the same drawing power for "abortion-vulnerable" women, Jack Hoogendyk, executive director of Alternatives of Kalamazoo Crisis Pregnancy Center in Michigan, wrote in a Focus on the Family newsletter about using HIV tests to attract pregnant women. His "ministry" took advantage of a state HIV screening program, he said.
"We became certified without spending any money, upgrading our facility, training new personnel or buying new equipment," he wrote. But, he said, "We do not recommend condoms as an effective option and we do not dispense them," he wrote. "Our mission is to reach the community with the gospel of Jesus Christ."
After this story was published, Alabama became the fourth state to approve "Choose Life" license tags.Cynthia L. Cooper is a journalist in New York City.
For more information:
National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League:
National Abortion Federation:
Focus on the Family, Crisis Pregnancy Ministry:
Choose Life Inc.: