The Fetal Position

Federal and state dollars are subsidizing a boom in antiabortion ‘crisis pregnancy centers.’

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It’s well known that President Bush is no friend to family planning. In November, for example, the administration threatened to pull out of the U.N. population accord, a landmark agreement that the United States helped write eight years ago, unless “reproductive health services” and “reproductive rights” — terms it fears could be construed as pro-abortion — are excised. But less well known is Bush’s effort on the domestic front to increase funding for his preferred version of family planning: crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs.

Often listed in the phone book under “clinic,” “pregnancy services,” or even “abortion services,” CPCs present themselves as unbiased providers of a full range of services. But according to abortion-rights groups and several state investigations, once a woman is inside, the CPC staff — usually volunteers with no professional training — try to dissuade her from abortion by exaggerating the risks, linking abortion to breast cancer and depression, playing gruesome videos depicting bloody fetuses, withholding pregnancy-test results, and even pressuring her to sign adoption papers.

CPCs have existed for about 30 years and despite numerous lawsuits, they’ve flourished. Today there are an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 centers nationwide. In part, such growth has been fueled by government funding. Public subsidies began in 1996, when the welfare-reform act provided $50 million for abstinence-only education programs, and CPCs realized that providing such curricula to schools would qualify them for assistance. Since taking office, Bush has increased funding for abstinence-only education by 69 percent to $135 million for 2003, nearly $3 million of which will go directly to CPCs.

More tax dollars may be on the way. A bill proposed by Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) would grant $3 million in ultrasound equipment to nonprofit organizations that provide free examinations to pregnant women. Presuming that “once she sees the baby in her womb, 99 percent of the time she’ll choose to have that baby,” as one CPC director told the National Review, many centers use ultrasound images as a high-tech tool to dissuade women from abortions. Stearns says his bill will provide women “with the full scope of information such that they may make a fully informed choice.” But the legislation specifies only that the equipment be used to show “the visual image of the fetus” — not to assess fetal health, say, or diagnose anomalies; even Stearns’ office notes, “The bill does not address any medical issues.” And the “free examination” provision is designed to exclude family-planning and abortion clinics that typically charge on a sliding scale.

States are also funding CPCs. Louisiana recently authorized $1.5 million for CPCs, and Delaware granted $39,000 to a single center. In Missouri and Pennsylvania, lawmakers gave $700,000 and $5 million, respectively, to agencies that provide “alternatives to abortion,” while withholding family-planning funds from facilities that provide abortion services. Some states have proved even more creative: Florida has raised $1.3 million for CPCs through sales of “Choose Life” license plates, and, despite concerns about road rage, five states have followed suit.

While CPCs have garnered government funding, they have not been subject to much government regulation, though that may change. In Michigan, where state funding for CPCs is under consideration, an “informed consent” bill has been introduced that would require centers to notify women that their services are not provided by medical personnel. CPCs “should not be getting support unless they have professional people doing counseling,” says state Rep. Judith Scranton, a Republican who sponsored the legislation after receiving complaints from constituents. No such guidelines, however, have been proposed at the federal level.


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