Last year, the state of Texas gave anti-abortion organization Heidi Group $1.6 million to provide every health care service to women except abortions. Eight months later, the Heidi Group appears to have fallen flat on its promise.
This week, the Associated Press reported that the organization has failed in its million-dollar endeavor to “strengthen small clinics that specialize in women’s health” but that don’t offer abortion. And this report comes at a particularly important moment: The GOP’s proposed alternative to the Affordable Care Act would defund Planned Parenthood, something House Speaker Paul Ryan called part of “a conservative wish list” at a press conference last week.
The AP reported that the Heidi Group, which is part of the state’s Alternatives to Abortion plan and whose funds subsidize Crisis Pregnancy Centers throughout the state, “has done little of the outreach it promised, such as helping clinics promote their services on Facebook, or airing public service announcements. It hasn’t made good on plans to establish a 1-800 number to help women find providers or ensure that all clinics have updated websites.”
The Texas state government’s logic behind the Heidi Group initiative was that women’s health care ought to be provided separately from abortions. The issue, though, is that Crisis Pregnancy Centers don’t employ medical professionals or provide medical services.
CPCs are women’s centers funded by anti-abortion groups (like Heidi Group), with the implicit aim of convincing women not to have abortions. Though many CPCs claim to offer a full range of services to pregnant women, the nearest thing that many CPCs have to medical professionals are sonogram nurses.
Unlike Planned Parenthood and other health care providers, CPCs do not offer STD tests, Pap smears, contraception advice or implantation, cancer screenings or prenatal care.
What CPCs do offer is faith-based counseling (often from volunteer counselors, not certified psychologists or psychotherapists) and short-term, quick-fix help often in the form of diapers and baby beds. CPCs are often located within walking distance to abortion clinics, and often place volunteer anti-abortion protestors outside of those clinics to hand out fliers and pamphlets to patients encouraging them not to go to their appointment. Many of them also have misleading names that could easily be confused with the names of actual abortion clinics, like Pregnancy Resource Clinic in Phoenix, Az. or Women’s Care Center, a chain of CPCs in Indiana.
“Crisis pregnancy centers are given millions of dollars in state funding to manipulate and shame Texans considering having an abortion,” Sharmeen Aly, Communications Coordinator of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. “They are not comprehensive health centers and often provide no medical services. Crisis pregnancy centers exist to prevent people facing unintended pregnancies from accessing abortion care and delay their care to the point where they’re not able to access abortion.”
“It is unconscionable that [Crisis Pregnancy Centers] continue to receive millions from the state to peddle their baseless anti-abortion agenda.”
Of course, the presence of CPCs isn’t just limited to the state of Texas.
The 2016 documentary film “JACKSON,” explored what the health care landscape looks like for women in Mississippi, where only one abortion clinic remains. Shannon Brewer, director of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, told HuffPost that what CPCs do to young women is provide a “false hope” that they’ll have support in raising unplanned children.
“By the time [patients] realize that it’s false hope,” Brewer said, “they’ve already had another baby, and they’re already in the same situation or a worse situation.”
Other states have also had to deal with CPCs, which often outnumber abortion clinics. In Charlotte, N.C., two mobile crisis pregnancy centers park outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center every day to try to get women to pull over before they park at the abortion clinic. The CPC, PRC Charlotte, boasts “no cost” services and “walk-ins welcome” ― traits that many women look for when seeking reproductive health care. PRC Charlotte offers free ultrasounds in their RVs, but otherwise offers zero medical services.
Some of the pro-choice volunteers outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center told HuffPost in December that PRC Charlotte often uses misleading information, or flat-out lies, to get patients to carry their pregnancies to term.
“Patients have been told that their pregnancy wasn’t ‘attached properly’ and that they would miscarry, so they should cancel their [abortion] appointment,” one volunteer clinic escort told HuffPost. “Another was told that her pregnancy was too far along for an abortion, and that she should cancel, too, even though it wasn’t.”
PRC Charlotte denied these practices, but research has shown that misleading patients is common practice for CPCs, and, back in Texas, Sharmeen Aly agrees.
“These centers use scare tactics and provide scientifically inaccurate information to their patients,” she told HuffPost. “It is unconscionable that they continue to receive millions from the state to peddle their baseless anti-abortion agenda.”
CPCs have become increasingly powerful, with the Heidi Group able to convince the Texas government to give it more than $1 million last year. And in Boise, Id., Brandi Swindell, who started CPC chain Stanton Healthcare, is hoping that CPCs can replace Planned Parenthood altogether. (Though in contrast to the care most CPCs provide ― or rather, don’t provide ― Swindell has said she wants to make STI testing and diagnostic ultrasounds available in her clinics.)
Swindell told Cosmopolitan last June: “We hope to be much like Margaret Sanger was, a revolutionary of her time... I know, can you believe I’m using her?”
But CPCs still cannot replace the thing that women arguably need most: actual comprehensive health care, provided by licensed medical professionals. And state governments are noticing.
The Heidi Group’s failure to provide what it set out to provide has been noticed by the commission that provided the group with funding.
Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman Carrie Williams told the AP that “the bottom line is that we are holding our contractors accountable, and will do everything we can to help them make themselves successful.”
And in Oakland, Ca. last summer, the City Council passed an ordinance requiring CPCs to be transparent about their provided services ― and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t provide. Oakland Vice Mayor and District 4 City Councilwoman Annie Campbell Washington, who co-authored the ordinance, told HuffPost that her biggest issue with CPCs is their misleading advertising practices.
“I take truth in advertising very seriously. I believe that CPCs are part of a pro-life strategy. They are completely misleading pregnant women who are vulnerable and specifically looking for abortion services,” she said. “If they were marketing their services as ‘We will help you through your pregnancy’ that’s fine. But that’s not what they’re doing. They’re lying to women.”
She also believes that the government should “absolutely not” be funding CPCs.
“They’re not providing the services that they claim to be providing,” she said. “They’re misleading women into believe they can get some sort of medical care, which they can’t. They should absolutely not be receiving government funding.”
Local governments in Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Francisco have also put into place legislation meant to combat misleading CPC practices, and now, even in an actively anti-abortion state like Texas, it’s becoming increasingly clear that CPCs are not the answer to expanding women’s access to health care.
It turns out that the care Planned Parenthood provides to 2.5 million men and women per year is not as easily replaceable as anti-abortion groups want it to be. The Heidi Group’s founder, the staunch anti-abortion advocate Carol Everett, acknowledged her organization’s shortcomings in Texas last week.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” she said. “Because we are not Planned Parenthood.”