Dollars for Deception: How Taxpayer Dollars Support Fake Clinics

12/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the waning, lame-duck days of the Bush Administration, still more damage may be wrought as it tries to weaken environmental rules, civil liberties and abortion rights.

One particularly odious proposed change to HHS regulations would make it even harder than it already is for poor women to get abortions -- or even contraception. And the new rules could possibly have another sinister effect as well: It might allow a redirection of Title X federal funding away from comprehensive family planning centers and into so-called "crisis pregnancy centers."

Those centers are not full-service medical clinics, and they do not offer a full range of reproductive options. As a report prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) described them, they are "virtually always [anti-abortion] organizations whose goal is to persuade teenagers and women with unplanned pregnancies to choose motherhood or adoption. They do not offer abortions or referrals to abortion providers."

Unfortunately, they're also the type of places where college students with unplanned pregnancies might inadvertently seek out reproductive health care.

As reported in the Fall 2008 issue of Ms. magazine, a survey conducted this past summer by Feminist Majority Foundation (which is also the publisher of Ms.) found that, among 398 campus health centers at 4-year colleges responding to a questionnaire, close to half routinely refer young women to crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). Although 81 percent of the campus health centers also refer students to full-service clinics, the fact that crisis pregnancy centers make the list at all is troubling.

There are as many as 4,000 of these centers in the U.S., a great number affiliated with evangelical Christian ministries. But CPCs don't necessarily want women to know what they're getting into when they enter the doors: They often mask their anti-abortion mission by advertising under "abortion services" in the yellow pages, or representing in ads that they provide pregnant women with all options. Their tactics are so deceptive, in fact, that Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have each introduced bills in Congress to prevent CPCs from continuing to use false advertising.

CPCs have had a huge champion over the past eight years, however: the Bush administration. Last year alone, CPCs across the country received nearly $14 million in federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding, which helped some centers expand their budgets as much as sevenfold, according to Waxman's report.

The source of those dollars is identifiable, but other discretionary funds from HHS -- such as Health Marriage Initiative funds--can be steered toward CPCs without leaving much of a trail. Also, members of Congress, such as Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Penn.), have been earmarking money for CPCs. This year, Spector circumvented his state's rejection of federal abstinence-only funding -- 25 states have rejected the monies because of restrictions on comprehensive sex education -- by setting aside $835,000 worth of earmarks for CPCs and abstinence-only education in Pennsylvania.

With all that federal funding -- plus state funding streams as well, including proceeds from "Choose Life" license plates -- CPCs have begun to compete with comprehensive health-care clinics for market share. "They're not just an alternative down the street," says Bill Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS (the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States). "They have been exceedingly skillful at getting money. The real threat is that these pseudo-health clinics are masquerading as health clinics." If the new HHS ruling goes through, the agency may interpret that the anti-abortion message propagated by CPCs is just as valid as the all-options-on-the-table service provided by comprehensive family planning clinics, thus making the CPCs eligible for the same funding.

Bottom line, the health of young women is put at risk by CPCs, which scares them with falsehoods about abortion. (It raises the risk of breast cancer! It causes infertility! You'll be traumatized!) In fact, delaying care for a woman who may not want to continue her pregnancy "only serves to put her at higher risk -- especially if she has an ectopic pregnancy," says Beth Jordan, M.D., a women's health specialist who is medical director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "As a doctor, it's shocking to me that health centers at academic institutions would refer women to these CPCs that blatantly misinform women of health risks in an attempt to scare them into keeping the pregnancy."

It's time to urge campus health centers to take non-medical clinics off their list of reproductive care referrals. It's also time to urge that the Congress stop stalling on the deception-busting bills put forth by Maloney and Melendez. And finally, with a new presidential administration taking office in a few months, it's time to redirect funding away from pseudo-health care and into the real thing.

Katherine Spillar is executive editor of Ms. and vice president of Feminist Majority Foundation.