Can Anti-Abortion ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ Snag Federal Family-Planning Funds?

For the most part, crisis pregnancy centers stay away from offering or even recommending any kind of “artificial” birth control. Photo: Adam Hart-Davis/Getty Images/Science Photo Librarary

Like nature, federal funding streams abhor a vacuum. So when the Trump administration pushed Planned Parenthood out of women’s family-planning programs by stipulating that recipients could not refer patients to (or have an organization connection with) abortion providers, a pot of about $60 million a year suddenly became available to anyone who could supply the stipulated services without running afoul of the new regs.

For the most part, the anti-abortion movement’s favorite alternative to Planned Parenthood clinics, its huge (an estimated 2,750 of them) network of so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” don’t really pretend to offer “family planning” or women’s health services. They mostly exist to talk or coerce pregnant women into carrying pregnancies to term, providing (at most) limited services (ultrasounds, of course, and perhaps neonatal health advice and adoption referrals) to make that choice seem morally or religiously obligatory. In addition, most of these centers are backed by, or enjoy some sort of support from, religious authorities that to varying degrees and for varying reasons oppose the general distribution of contraceptives. No wonder 13 different national organizations involved with CPCs recently made it clear they will not “offer, recommend, or refer for abortions, abortifacients, or contraceptives” as a matter of “staying true to the standards set forth in the Bible for sexual behavior.”

But whether its the lure of filthy federal lucre or a sincere interest in family planning that doesn’t involve abortions, a group of Texas “Christian pregnancy centers” has decided to offer contraceptives and apply for the money Planned Parenthood can no longer receive, as the Washington Post reports:

Eight independent Texas-based pregnancy centers merged earlier this year to form a chain called The Source. With Christian women’s health centers in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, the nonprofit organization plans to offer a full array of medical services, to include testing for sexually transmitted diseases, first-trimester prenatal care and contraception choices …

The decision to provide contraception is a huge cultural shift for Christian centers that, for religious reasons, do not normally offer birth control. But it represents what some in the antiabortion movement say is a much-needed rebranding for pregnancy centers — away from emphasizing ending abortion and toward placing women’s health care front and center. Many younger conservative Christians, in particular, are concerned with how the movement treats women.

Trouble is, there is no universal position concerning contraception among people who are fighting legalized abortion. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, formally opposes “artificial” methods of birth control (i.e., only abstinence-based “natural” approaches like the “rhythm method,” jocularly known as Vatican roulette, are permitted), although it’s a moral teaching that is very heavily ignored by Catholic laity in this country. Protestants traditionally have had no general problem with contraception, other than its use outside marriage (to the extent that they opposed sex itself outside marriage). Before Roe v. Wade, of course, most Protestants, even conservative Evangelicals, tended to favor more liberal abortion laws. But gradually, conservative Evangelicals drifted into the anti-abortion camp, and in the pews at least, they are now vastly more likely than Catholics to oppose reproductive rights.

Perhaps by osmosis, or via a general alienation from the mores of secular society, many conservative Evangelicals now have gone from accepting contraceptives so long as they don’t facilitate alleged promiscuity to opposing their distribution to the unmarried and then to refusal to accept some contraceptives as anything other than “abortifacients.” Famously the Evangelical-oriented for-profit enterprise Hobby Lobby secured a landmark Supreme Court decision acknowledging a “religious liberty” exception for employers with a religious objection to Obamacare’s contraception coverage mandate. As Sarah Posner noted, treatment of some contraceptives as abortion mechanisms was central to their argument:

Unlike Catholic plaintiffs, which oppose covering all methods of birth control, Hobby Lobby is refusing only to cover intrauterine devices and the emergency contraceptives Ella and Plan B, which they claim are abortifacients. Hobby Lobby says that its deeply held religious conviction is that “life begins at conception.” Because, it claims (contrary to medical evidence), emergency contraception and IUDs can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, it considers these drugs and devices “abortifacients.” (Conservative activists have taken to calling the contraception coverage requirement the “abortion pill” or “abortion drug” mandate.)

Interestingly, the Source is following some but not all of this precedent for anti-abortion Evangelical religious activists:

[T]he Source centers will all offer pills; injections; intrauterine devices, or IUDs; and other contraceptive methods beginning in March, a move that Source chief executive Andy Schoonover said will help reduce unwanted pregnancies by preventing them before they take place …

The centers will not provide emergency contraceptive pills such as the Plan B “morning after” pill, because Schoonover said they consider the drugs to be a form of abortion. 

Like many CPCs, of course, the exact religious provenance of the Source’s facilities is kept a bit vague, as the Post’s description of its Austin center attests:

Small Bibles and “Our Daily Bread” devotionals are strategically placed on tables throughout the center, which is decorated with mid-century modern furniture. Staffers must sign a statement of faith, although because of government funding requirements, employees are to discuss faith only if a client brings it up. A small box labeled “prayer requests” sits next to the intake window.

Time will tell whether this experiment works, with the Trump administration blessing this new model of anti-abortion pregnancy center, and others emulating it. In many respects, it parallels the efforts in recent years of Republican politicians to rebrand themselves and their party as anti-abortion but pro-contraception, most famously by two U.S. senators who are at some risk of losing their seats in 2020:

Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) re-introduced the Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act, paving the way for contraceptives to be sold over-the-counter without a prescription. 

The Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act incentivizes manufacturers of routine-use contraceptives to file an application with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell their products over the counter (OTC). These incentives apply to any contraceptive the FDA deems to be safe and effective for routine OTC use and available to adults over the age of 18. Additionally, the legislation ensures OTC contraceptives would not be unfairly taxed. 

I suppose the trend represented by both the Source and these vulnerable Republican pols is a good thing in itself insofar as it makes certain reproductive services available to women who might not otherwise have access to him. But in the end, supporting some reproductive or women’s health services while opposing any right to them and to others is sort of like being half-pregnant: It’s not a real thing.

Can ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ Snag Federal Funds?