Federally funded "pregnancy resource centers" throughout the country are receiving millions in taxpayer dollars despite promoting religious content and disseminating what critics say is misleading medical information.
Despite reservations from some in Congress, nearly $6 million in grants have been given to 21 pregnancy centers since the beginning of 2006, according to new data obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Many of these centers are receiving far more federal funding then they seemingly could need.
The Northern Hill Pregnancy Care Center in Spearfish, South Dakota, for example, has been granted more than $630,000 over three years despite seeing only 110 to 150 new clients per year. The Door of Hope Pregnancy Care Center in Madisonville, Kentucky, was given more than $300,000 in federal grants over the last two years, even though the entire female population of the town (all ages) is less than 11,000. First Choice Pregnancy Center in Texarkana, Texas, meanwhile, sees between 800 and 1,000 patients annually. For that, the center has been granted more than $1.3 million over three years - an average of approximately $500 per person per year.
Executives with these centers say they are providing an invaluable medical service and support to their patients. "Our main role is to be a place of refuge for women, teens and families in a crisis pregnancy situation," Kim Banks, executive director of the Texarkana facility, told The Huffington Post.
But watchdog groups say otherwise.
"It is ridiculous that there is a ton of money going to these tiny towns," Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of CREW told The Huffington Post. "You have to wonder what that money is being spent on. It can't possibly have all been spent educating women and teens about anything related to pregnancy."
But for Sloan and others it is not just an issue of mis-allocating federal funds. Many of these centers are often criticized for using the money they are granted to provide women with false impressions about abortion, abstinence, and pregnancy
On its website, the Westside Pregnancy Resource Center in Los Angeles suggests that women who receive abortions could experience an increased risk of breast cancer, a conclusion at odds with the mainstream medical consensus. As a reference, the center links to a 1986 letter government scientists wrote to the British journal Lancet. The Crisis Pregnancy Center, Inc. in Anchorage Alaska, meanwhile, sites suicidal thoughts, alcohol and drug abuse and spiritual consequences as post-abortion side affects, without offering elaboration. Other centers suggest that women can experience infertility, "post-abortion stress disorder" and even a "fear of punishment from God" following an abortion.
"Obviously there are no scientific explanations for these claims," said Martha Kempner, vice president for Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a critic of abstinence-only sex-education programs. "These centers are part of a larger conservative social agenda... designed to prevent women from choosing abortion and promoting marriage above all else."
Legally, as well, these centers - which are not all self-described as faith-based - have come under fire for operating in what critics describe as an overtly religious context. Several organizations work hand-in-hand with Stop and Think, an abstinence-till-marriage program that requires its presenters to "possess an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ", "knowledge of the Word of God", and "attend a Bible believing local church or fellowship."
"We are a Christian organization and have Christian beliefs and we believe very strongly that the church has a role in social issues," Roxie Johnson, executive director for the Northern Hill facility in South Dakota, told The Huffington Post. "[Stop and Think] is a skill-oriented program that teaches critical thinking. When we go into the schools we can't advocate religion. But it is a very vital program in preventing teenage pregnancies."
For critics, such an explanation doesn't hold muster. These pregnancy centers, they argue, are walking a thin line between providing medical services and directly proselytizing.
"The concern is that it is a government-funded program advocating a religious content," said Dianna Kasdan, a staff attorney for the ACLU. "These programs are supposed to provide information and education about a host of issues. It is not appropriate for the government to fund a program teaching religious viewpoints."
Faith-based organizations such as these pregnancy resource centers have been a staple of President Bush's domestic agenda. Through the Compassion Capital Fund administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Bush administration has directed $264 million to more than 4,500 organizations since 2002.
"Our goal is to serve the poor among us in the most effective way possible, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a recent press release. "By supporting grass-roots organizations already serving those in need in their communities, we are increasing our ability to help more people gain control of their lives."
HHS officials did not respond to multiple requests for further comment.
In July 2006, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., issued a report that pregnancy resource centers had been given $30 million in federal money since 2001, and that these centers often promoted information that "may be effective in frightening pregnant teenagers and women and discouraging abortion."
The findings of CREW suggest that not only has the flow of taxpayer money to these centers not slowed down since Waxman's report was released, but that the same, often misleading, information is still being propagated.
"It is outrageous that our taxpayer dollars are being spent misleading vulnerable women about health issues," said Sloan. "To tell pregnant women and teens that an abortion will cause breast cancer is appalling and it is that much worse when it is done with federal funds."