ST. PAUL – Anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers receive nearly $3 million in taxpayer money every year with little regulation. Minnesota Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester and other Minnesota lawmakers are pushing to change that.
There are 85 crisis pregnancy centers in Minnesota — nonprofit, often religious, clinics that offer free services like ultrasounds, pregnancy tests, and counseling sessions to discuss pregnancy options, all of which can be attractive to patients with unplanned pregnancies. But they also often try to discourage patients from seeking abortion treatment.
In August, the Rochester Post Bulletin published an investigation detailing widespread medical misinformation espoused by crisis pregnancy centers, some of which are government-funded, including exaggerated risks of abortion, inaccurate ultrasound readings, and unsubstantiated claims that high doses of progesterone were being taken instead The prescribed drug sequence can “reverse” a medical abortion.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has since issued a consumer alert against crisis pregnancy centers, warning Minnesotans that the centers mislead, misinform, and deceive people.
Crisis pregnancy centers are currently funded through the Positive Alternatives Grant Program, established in 2005 by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The program grants money to prenatal organizations, but only if they promote pregnancy opportunities outside of abortion.
Favorite bill, HF 289, introduced Jan. 11, would change the program and rename it “Positive Pregnancies” — extending authority to organizations that talk to patients about abortions, among other pregnancy options. It would also improve oversight of grantees, including a requirement that center staff refer licensed professionals to abortions on request and only share “medically accurate information” with patients.
This isn’t the first time Liebling, who chairs the Health Finance and Policy Committee, has tried to increase government oversight of crisis pregnancy centers. She proposed a similar amendment in 2019, but it never made it through the conference committee.
“Frankly, we want to do a lot better in this state at making sure pregnancies are healthy, that we reduce the inequalities that we’ve heard about, and that we support people when they decide to start a family. Liebling said at a House committee meeting on Jan. 19. “This is really important for all of us.”
However, during the meeting, some resented the proposed changes. Minnesota House Representative Anne Brindley, a North Branch Republican, called the bill “absurd” and “bizarre.”
“It creates not only unnecessary obstacles, but careless ones to prevent recipients from maintaining their grant funding,” said Lynesha Caron of Pregnancy Choices, a crisis pregnancy center in Apple Valley. “If the current recipients of this grant lose funding because we choose not to have abortions, who will step in to fill the gaps that we are filling together?”
Jennifer Meyer, executive director of Options for Women East, a crisis pregnancy center in St. Paul, said she was also concerned about the loss of funding under the new bill’s provisions.
“We uphold the dignity of human life,” Meyer said. “By forcing us to refer abortions, this bill goes directly against our core values.”
However, many others who testified said they viewed the language changes as expanding rather than limiting their capabilities. For example, the changes mean that discussing abortion with patients and providing referrals would no longer be a disqualification criterion for medical clinics wishing to apply for funding.
“We believe every pregnant person deserves unconditional support, information without bias or limitations, and resources appropriate to their needs,” said Megan Peterson, executive director of Gender Justice, a legal and political advocacy group in St. Paul.
Deborah Herman Juda, a registered nurse, testified that when she was employed at two different reproductive health clinics last year — one of which was a grant-funded center — she was concerned about the discrepancies.
She said while she was in the grantee’s clinic, she was forced to change her clinical practice. She could connect her patients to prenatal care or give them names of adoption agencies, but she was forbidden from helping a patient plan an abortion. Meanwhile, in the clinic without a fellow, she was able to freely talk to her patients, discuss all pregnancy options, and issue referrals for necessary services.
“Before my nursing career, I was a doula and midwife,” Judah said. “I love anything having to do with having children and that’s why I’m asking you to pass the Positive Pregnancy Support Act which could fund these services to many more clinics, clinics that are doing a great job and referring patients for all pregnancy options, including abortion.”
Some supporters of the bills support these changes based on personal experience.
Minnesota Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul, co-author of the bill, shared during the meeting that a crisis pregnancy center she once visited did not say she had an ectopic pregnancy after an ultrasound and insisted that she continue the pregnancy. The fertilized egg cannot survive in an ectopic pregnancy, and the growing tissue, if left untreated, can cause life-threatening bleeding, according to the Mayo Clinic in a description of the condition on its website.
She said her decision to attend a reproductive health clinic afterwards, with licensed medical professionals to read her ultrasound correctly and compassionately discuss her pregnancy decision, was what she needed as a patient.
“Having all the information, medically accurate information, while making my decision has been life changing,” Her said.