Wall Street Journal

Pregnancy Resource Centers Spark Funding Row Between Biden Administration, Antiabortion Groups

Conservatives push back on proposal to limit federal money for facilities that discourage women from abortions

By Stephanie Armour

WASHINGTON—The fight over federal abortion policy is heating up over a new question: whether tax dollars should flow to pregnancy resource centers that counsel women against abortions.

States use about $16.5 billion annually from a federal program designed to assist low-income families with children to move toward financial self-sufficiency. To help reach that goal, grants must accomplish specific purposes such as promoting job training and marriage, preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and encouraging two-parent families.

The fixed grants finance state initiatives including time-limited, monthly cash payments to families. Some states also funnel money to centers that provide support to pregnant women and discourage them from getting abortions.

Now, the Biden administration is asserting in a proposed federal rule that resource centers that largely provide pregnancy counseling to women only after they become pregnant likely don’t meet the program’s aim of preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies. 

A senior administration official said the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, is merely clarifying that pregnancy counseling and other programs that apply only after someone is pregnant don’t prevent and reduce pregnancies as required by federal law.

The proposed rule wouldn’t ban the use of all of the grant funds for crisis pregnancy centers and some supportive services, such as providing diapers to expectant mothers, might be allowable, the official said. The proposed rule also doesn’t stop states from using their own funds for crisis pregnancy facilities.

Conservatives and antiabortion groups are fighting back. Some officials at the centers, which often rely on more than one funding source, said they would have to increase private donations and scale back services. Antiabortion groups said some centers could face possible closure. States also must contribute their own funds to the program.

“It’s about helping moms, dads and babies,” said GOP Pennsylvania State Rep. Kate Klunk. “I see this as political, as a way to curry favor with pro-choice women heading into an election.”

The money comes from a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. The federal assistance program was launched in 1997, replacing Aid to Families With Dependent Children, and it grants states some flexibility in how they operate and provide support to help low-income families.

HHS wants states that use the federal money to help fund the centers to show how that spending meets the purpose of the program, and the agency also wants to require the states to provide research backing up those claims. 

Conservative lawmakers and antiabortion groups said that would imperil some pregnancy resource centers. Specifically, they fear it will halt federal taxpayer funding to centers in Missouri, Louisiana and Indiana, three states that provide the centers with TANF funds. Pennsylvania had also done so, but halted such funding as of the end of 2023 after abortion-rights groups advocated for the change.

A senior HHS official said the agency is now reviewing public comments on the proposal. The agency said in the proposed rule that programs that solely or primarily provide pregnancy counseling to women after they become pregnant likely don’t meet TANF goals “because the connection to preventing and reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies is tenuous or nonexistent.”

Abortion-rights groups have long accused pregnancy resource centers of providing misleading information about abortions. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the pregnancy centers use “deception, delay tactics, and disinformation” and endanger public health by causing delays in “accessing legitimate healthcare.”

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra was serving as California attorney general when the state required all of its 200 pregnancy resource centers to display written information about free and low-cost abortions. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that the California law violated the First Amendment.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America said it supports the proposal in a comment letter to the administration.

“These centers target their marketing toward young people, people of color and people with low incomes, exploiting them by offering free services in exchange for participation in abstinence or religious seminars,” the organization said in its letter.

Directors of some of the pregnancy centers said they are being unfairly maligned. They said they discuss with clients how to prevent future unwanted pregnancies, which they argue fits the mission of the TANF program. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in December urged the public to petition the Biden administration to drop its proposed funding restrictions on the centers. Congressional Republicans, such as Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi and Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, led a comment letter urging HHS to drop the proposal, saying pregnancy centers save taxpayers many millions of dollars through the work they perform.

A Woman’s Concern, a pregnancy resource center in Lancaster, Pa., has nurses and a fetal medicine doctor. Executive Director Jill Hartman said they provide a free ultrasound to confirm viability of the fetus and to determine gestational age.

She said it can be a health risk if the woman leaves and takes abortion pills if she is far along. The pills, mifepristone and misoprostol, are commonly used together and the regime is approved by the Food and Drug Administration through 10 weeks of gestation.

Hartman said the center connects women with resources, group classes on parenting, and supplies such as car seats and clothes. 

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said he would end a contract on Dec. 31, 2023, that provided TANF funds to a group that runs pregnancy resource centers in the state. Hartman said she is working to cut expenses to cope with the financial loss from the decision and the looming Biden administration proposal.

Such a cut could affect future couples such as Nicholas Luccarella and Lindsay Smith, who relied on A Woman’s Concern when Smith was pregnant with their son Rocky, who is now 15 months old. The pregnancy was planned, she said. She was able to get credit by taking parenting classes that she could redeem at the center’s boutique.

“We didn’t have to buy diapers till after his first birthday,” said Smith, 34, a bank teller. “We got a stroller, car seats and a little bathtub that we earned by going to meetings with my advocate and the dads group.”