The Days After Dobbs for Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Ashland Pregnancy Care Center in rural northeastern Ohio, is outgrowing its current building. The reception room features stuffed blue chairs, sprightly artificial yellow flowers, and a hospitality section with a Keurig coffee dispenser and water bottles. A large mounted television provides information about labor and delivery classes and other announcements. The front door is locked—a nod to increasing security concerns such centers are facing.

“We are bursting at the seams,” Chris Coffy, a registered nurse and clinic manager at the center, told The Dispatch. She performs ultrasounds at the center in a small room that features a hospital bed and other medical equipment. Other nurses teach labor and delivery classes for expectant mothers.

Down a few blocks, the center also has a boutique shop where parents can get supplies for themselves and their children—everything from cribs and car seats to onesies and breast pumps. Parents can participate in programs at the center to earn credits that they can redeem at the boutique.

Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade last month, pro-life activists and crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) like Ashland face increased scrutiny. As regulation of abortion goes back to individual states to decide, creating a patchwork of abortion law across the U.S., some pro-choice elected officials are criticizing  CPCs as dishonest or scams. Pro-life activists and CPC administrators, meanwhile, say they have been preparing to care for expectant mothers in a post-Roe reality and can rise to meet the need. But pro-life people of various stripes say more can be done to help women facing unexpected pregnancies, with some looking at federal solutions.

“We’ve been preparing for years for a post-Roe America,” Melanie Miller, director of Ashland Pregnancy Care Center, told The Dispatch. She said she’s seen increased engagement from the community increase since the decision, with more donations and people helping the center stock up on needed items like breast pumps and diapers.

Robert Pearson, a Catholic pro-life advocate, founded the CPC movement in the 1960s when states began legalizing abortion. Most are affiliated with national pro-life organizations, and most are faith-based Catholic or Christian. Today, there are around 3,000 CPCs in the United States.

Centers provide free pregnancy tests, and some offer prenatal ultrasounds, sonograms, and testing for sexually transmitted infections or diseases. CPCs offer classes in prenatal development, childbirth, parenting, and general life skills. Some offer emergency and financial assistance for women who face unexpected pregnancies, as well as adoption referrals. They’re explicitly opposed to abortion, offer counseling that is pro-life, and do not offer referrals to abortion providers. CPCs gained more federal political support when President George W. Bush included supporting them as part of his administration’s agenda. 

In congressional testimony earlier in July, Erin Hawley (who is married to Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri), counsel for nonprofit legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, said that CPCs serviced 1.85 million families in 2019 and provided $266 million worth of goods and services.

Miller said that while Ashland does not offer every medical service, it offers free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and a myriad of services that support women facing pregnancy, including  classes taught by nurses on delivery, breastfeeding, and parenting and pregnancy education.

Of late, the center is focusing on offering more resources. Maryanne Wise, coordinator of an abortion recovery program at Ashland, said more counselors are getting trained in trauma-informed care, and the center will offer abortion pill reversal services later this year and plans to offer sexually transmitted disease testing next year.

“The lie in our culture today is that the pregnancy resource centers are fake clinics. Or that we misguide or we lie to women and that is not what we do at all,” Miller said. Recently, a woman got into her face and screamed at her at a community event, accusing her of oppressing women. Other centers in Ohio have been vandalized and had their windows broken.

“We walk through this journey with families from pregnancy all the way until their baby is 18 months of age,” Miller said. “The argument we hear over and over is, oh, when the baby is born, we don’t care about them. That’s not the case at all. We want families to get a good solid start in life.”

But pro-choice politicians have dialed up their criticism of crisis pregnancy centers following Dobbs, primarily complaining that pregnancy centers may mislead women into thinking they can offer abortions, say the centers should not qualify as providing health care because they do not offer abortions, and some accuse CPCs of misleading women into choosing to give birth when they would rather terminate the pregnancy.

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren told NBC 10 Boston earlier this month that in her state, “those crisis pregnancy centers that are there to fool people who are looking for pregnancy termination help outnumber true abortion clinics by three to one … we need to shut them down here in Massachusetts and we need to shut them down all around the country.”

Warren, along with Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, introduced a bill to fine CPCs that practice deceptive advertising tactics. The bill would fine $100,000 or “50 percent of revenue earned by the ultimate parent entity” of the organization if the Federal Trade Commission determines there is a violation. Warren told National Review’s John McCormack that violations could include mimicking “Planned Parenthood’s colors and Planned Parenthood’s logo and to imply to the public that if you come here, you could get abortion services.”

On a state level, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week line-item vetoed $20 million in the state budget that would have given $3 million to CPCs, as well as $10 million for advertising adoption options for women. Her spokesman, Bobby Leddy, said in a statement that the governor “cannot support aspects of a bill that sends millions in taxpayer dollars to fake health centers that intentionally withhold information from women about their health, bodies, and full reproductive freedom.” He also criticized CPCs, saying they use “deceptive advertising that target young women and women with low incomes who are seeking abortion care, painting themselves as comprehensive, licensed health care clinics that provide all options, and then lie to women about medical facts.”

Not all pregnancy centers are created equal. Reason’s Liz Wolfe noted that some CPCs have made misleading claims about the dangers of abortion or used deceptive tactics, linking to an NBC News investigation. Undercover reporters found that two CPCs gave misleading information, including implying abortions cause infertility. Some of that may stem from Robert Pearson, who wrote a manual about operating CPCs that advised giving deceptive answers to women seeking help. 

“Of course, volunteers and workers at these centers are not agnostic about which choice women make; these charities are all founded to persuade women to choose not to abort their babies. They’re attempts by pro-lifers to spend their time and resources in a way that’s consistent with their convictions,” Wolfe wrote. 

Pro-life advocates argue that the good work done by the majority of CPCs far outweigh bad exceptions.

“There are lots of women who are facing obstacles and want to have abortions. Well, we want to make sure that if they choose to have an abortion, it’s not because we didn’t remove the obstacles to birth but it’s clearly because they want to have an abortion … but it’s not because she felt like she had no choice,” Roland Warren, president of CareNet, told The Dispatch.

CareNet is a nonprofit Christian organization that operates as a network of crisis pregnancy centers. In the wake of Dobbs, Warren expects to see more women turning to pregnancy centers as laws shift around the states. After Texas passed a law last September that prevented abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, Warren said some local affiliates saw as much as a 40 percent increase in ultrasounds. He expects CPCs to serve more families in coming years.

Warren said that in his experience, many of the women who seek pregnancy centers have already had a prior abortion or already have other children, and can compare and contrast the choices.

“So how on God’s green earth are we going to be able to deceive them into giving birth to another child?” he asked.

The criticism from pro-choice politicians and activists frustrates Martin, especially given a spike in pregnancy centers that have been graffitied, firebombed, bombed with Molotov cocktails, or otherwise vandalized. Care Net’s own headquarters has had to add security guards.

He sees the criticism as counterproductive to the ultimate goal: helping women. Warren said he believes both the pro-choice and pro-life camp should consider how to remove obstacles to women in making decisions: “And what are the obstacles? The father is not involved so she feels that she doesn’t have the support? We should be working on initiatives and getting more involved. She doesn’t have a place to live? Well, okay, how can we solve that?”

Some pro-life activists have struck a somber note in the wake of the Dobbs decision, voicing concerns that the pro-life can’t answer those sorts of questions.

“I think the reality of it is, women who are in desperate situations are still going to seek out abortions,” Destiny Herndon-de La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, told The Dispatch. New Wave Feminists is a pro-life nonprofit that focuses on the rights of women as well as the unborn. “[Dobbs has] done nothing to actually give them the resources they need to parent. We’ve only taken away one of their options.”

She added: “Do I see conservative, you know, quote, unquote, pro-life politicians, suddenly being incentivized to create this support system that we should have had for years that would have probably prevented millions of abortions in the last 49 years? Like no, because they didn’t do it when it would have been effective. You know, pre-Roe being overturned. Why would they suddenly do it now?”

CPCs working to offer resources like diapers, cribs, and support for new parents is good but, “that is in no way the systemic change that we need to be able to create a culture of life,” Herndon-de La Rosa said.

“Housing, childcare, transportation, and in rural areas, healthcare. Those are the four main things that we have women asking for and we are sorely unprepared to meet the needs in those areas,” she said. “I think we have to step up and provide those resources and it’s going to be a patchwork of resources.”

Miller, of Ashland Pregnancy Center, told The Dispatch one thing she sees a need for is for communities to help support single moms who need housing. “It is so hard for a single mom to be able to work and then be able to afford childcare—you know, there are ways that our community can support these women.”

It is still an open question whether pro-life conservative and Republican politicans will support policies designed to support women facing crisis pregnancies, or whether they will leave it to the private sector to respond.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans were divided about whether to get behind overarching federal legislation to support families or leave it up to the states to hash out.

Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, said one of the biggest issues is simply congressional gridlock: “I just think it’d be difficult here to try to get 60 votes on anything on the subject.” He added: “I do think states that are talking about the sanctity of life also need to be talking about how you keep your mother and child healthy and spending resources to promote that as well.”

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told The Dispatch it was more of an issue for the states: “I think what people will find once they get beyond sort of the initial reaction to Roe is that for people in California, Illinois, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, all of these blue states, nothing changes whatsoever. So I think that there will be restrictions, you know, on abortion. There already are in some of the Southern states and some of the more red states and perhaps people will come to the understanding that federalism does allow people to have different belief systems in different parts of the country.”

As The Dispatch has previously covered, various states have chosen to tighten or loosen laws in response to Dobbs, with more changes likely to come.

Others voiced interest in one plan in particular: Sen. Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act 2.0 (FSA 2.0).* The bill would condense a variety of low-income tax credits and other provisions in the tax code into a single monthly benefit for parents with children: $350 per month for each young child, and $250 a month for school-aged children. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Sen. Steve Daines are co-sponsors.

It would begin providing assistance during pregnancy, and would send monthly checks to all but the wealthiest families. FSA 2.0 would allow couples to both draw benefits for their children, and additional children would up the amount of the benefit. The plan is estimated to be fully covered by eliminating and streamlining some other tax processes, including eliminating the state and local tax deduction (SALT) and eliminating the head of household filing status and child and dependent care tax credit.

Billed as a “pro-family, pro-life, and pro-marriage plan,” the plan has won the endorsement of the pro-life organizations Susan B. Anthony List and the National Right to Life.

“Senator Romney strongly believes in supporting families and expectant mothers,” Romney press secretary Arielle Mueller told The Dispatch. “His plan also eliminates marriage penalties and would reduce child poverty, all without adding to our national debt.” 

It’s unclear whether the plan will make headway among other Republicans.

Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota described himself as “generally supportive.” Sen. Joni Ernst said she would have to look at the bill but that “I do believe in supporting the family and supporting young women who face unexpected pregnancies.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said Romney’s proposal is “worth looking into”: “One of the gaps that we have in policy is more help for childcare, more help for families raising kids. I’m for looking at all this parental leave.”

“We need to win the hearts and minds of people about why being pro-life, about why folks should feel comfortable with that,” Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said. “And expand the definition or at least make people understand the expanded definition of caring for the mother and the child through and after the pregnancy as well.”

Cassidy introduced a bill in 2019 to give a lump sum to families who are adopting or giving birth to a child, and said of policies to directly help families that: “I’ve been for this all along.”

“We’re building support—doing it person by person,” Sen. Mitt Romney told The Dispatch. He added that they were waiting for the reconciliation bill to be put to bed before they began working with Democrats. “Clearly there needs to be a bipartisan proposal if we expect to have it pass on the floor.”

On the Democratic side, most Democrats were loath to weigh in directly, with several saying they would have to look at the bill before commenting.

“I will say this about Romney—he always operates in good faith so I’d be willing to take a hard look at it,” Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii told The Dispatch. “My understanding is that it would be too harsh of a trade-off between eliminating or praying back other social safety net programs in exchange for establishing this credit and that would be my reservation. But I think it’s a good faith effort and I’d be happy to look at it.”

*July 26, 2022: This story has been updated to correct the title of Sen. Romney’s Family Security Act 2.0.

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