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States fund antiabortion advice

Times Staff Writer

austin, texas -- In an experiment that’s opening a new front in the culture wars, a growing number of states are paying antiabortion activists to counsel women with unplanned pregnancies.

At least eight states -- including Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania -- use public funds to subsidize crisis pregnancy centers, Christian homes for unwed mothers and other programs explicitly designed to steer women away from abortion. As a condition of the grants, counselors are often barred from referring women to any clinic that provides abortions; in some cases, they may not discuss contraception either.

Most states still spend far more money subsidizing comprehensive family planning, but the flow of tax dollars to antiabortion groups has surged in recent months, as programs have taken effect in Texas and Minnesota.

The trend alarms abortion-rights supporters, who assert that the funds would be better spent -- and would prevent more abortions -- if used to expand access to birth control. But to antiabortion activists such as Nancy McDonald, the funding is both practical and symbolic, a way of putting the state’s stamp of approval on their work.

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“It’s a subtle thing,” said McDonald, who runs five crisis pregnancy centers in South Florida. “But people seem to think if you’re affiliated with the state, you must be good.”

Here in Texas, the state reduced grants to a Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Austin -- and began sending some of the money to the Roman Catholic diocese a block away.

There, in a cozy office adorned with paintings of Jesus and Mary, counselors can collect $1.05 in public funds for every minute they spend encouraging women and teens not to abort. They show clients photos of a translucent fetus; they give away maternity clothes and baby blankets. Later this month, they will begin offering a statesubsidized one-hour class on infant care.

Tax dollars cannot be used for religious purposes, but federal law permits faith-based groups to participate in government programs and protects displays of religious symbols, such as the basket of plastic rosaries at the diocese’s Gabriel Project Life Center.

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Amy Chestnut coordinates the Gabriel Project now, but she was once a client, pregnant at 16. The lessons she got on abstinence -- she was told to commit to a “secondary virginity” -- didn’t stick; she got pregnant again at 19.

But she said the emotional support she received from the counselors -- simple acts such as rubbing her belly and talking about the baby with delight, not dismay -- persuaded her to carry both pregnancies. Chestnut, 25, has since married the man who fathered both children; she keeps a family photo with her to show clients that even unwanted pregnancies can bring joy.

“People were always assuming that I’d have an abortion. To hear just one person say ‘You can do this’ made such a difference,” Chestnut said.

Crisis pregnancy centers have received tens of millions of dollars from the federal government over the last six years, mostly for abstinence education.

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On the state level, Florida, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Texas approved funding in 2005. Louisiana, Missouri and Pennsylvania have longer-running programs. Arizona and Kansas have offered one-time grants to antiabortion groups; several other states fund abortion alternatives from sales of “Choose Life” license plates.

All told, states will spend at least $13 million this year -- much of it from welfare or family-planning budgets -- to dissuade women from abortion.

In a related campaign, conservatives in several states are pushing to restrict or eliminate public funding for groups that support abortion rights, especially Planned Parenthood. They’ve had some success, notably in Missouri; six other legislatures will take up the issue this year.

But the vast majority of states still send grants to Planned Parenthood, in amounts that dwarf the antiabortion funding. Last year, Planned Parenthood received $80 million from states and $200 million from the federal government.

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Tax dollars going to Planned Parenthood do not pay for abortions; they cover birth control, gynecological exams, cancer screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. When clients come in with unwanted pregnancies, they hear about all of their options, including keeping the baby and giving it up for adoption. But critics say there can be a presumption that abortion is the easier solution.

“You have a choice ... do what’s right for you,” a brochure available in the Austin clinic advises pregnant teens. The bright-red flier urges them to consider how raising a child would hurt their social lives and crimp their freedom. The cartoon on the cover shows a howling infant.

Antiabortion activists say it’s only fair for states to fund an alternative view as well. Their pamphlets feature photos of adorable babies and beaming teenage moms; their counselors promise to help pregnant women find apartments, get jobs and finish their degrees -- anything to make it easier for them to carry to term.

“I have heard many pro-choice people say, ‘There ought to be fewer abortions.’ [Funding] this is one way we can do that,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Thomas A. Tangretti, a Democrat who opposes abortion. “I just can’t imagine why anyone would be afraid of it.”

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Critics offer several reasons.

U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), an abortion rights supporter, last year asked undercover investigators to contact 23 crisis pregnancy centers; 20 gave misleading information, such as exaggerating the risk of abortion, he reported. In Austin, the diocese hands out a booklet -- approved by the state -- that suggests a link between abortion and breast cancer, though the National Cancer Institute has found no such connection.

“It’s reprehensible that taxpayer dollars are going to organizations that regularly and deliberately deceive women,” said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, which represents abortion providers.

Critics also claim that the emphasis on abortion alternatives drains money from basic healthcare. As evidence, they point to Texas.

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In 2005, Texas lawmakers redirected $25 million that was to have gone to Planned Parenthood over two years. Most went instead to primary-care health clinics (which provide contraception but not abortion). But $5 million of the money was set aside for antiabortion centers that do not provide medical care and will not refer clients to clinics that prescribe birth control.

To deal with its 62% budget cut, the Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Austin began charging for services long offered free to low-income women. Since the fees took effect, the clinic has distributed 40% fewer birthcontrol pills and has conducted 50% fewer Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer. Several thousand patients have stopped coming.

Among them is Christina Moore, a 22-year-old mother of two who said she and her husband couldn’t afford $23 a month for birth-control pills she used to get free. “But we can’t afford to have more kids, either,” she said.

Last week, Moore tried to make an appointment with a county clinic; even though she said she had urgent health questions, the earliest they can see her is April.

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“I’m already out of pills. I’m worried,” Moore said. Her year-old son began howling in the background, and her voice rose: “I do not want to get pregnant now.”

Through January, Texas antiabortion groups had counseled 660 women and teens with the tax dollars made available by the shift in resources. Some lawmakers question the cost: Not counting more than $400,000 in start-up expenses, the counseling has run an average of $450 per client. (By comparison, a year of exams and contraception costs $180.)

But activists remain passionate about the trend. Last week, the Texas Catholic Conference sent volunteers in turquoise shirts to the Capitol to give lawmakers angel food cakes -- and a long list of legislative priorities.

At the top of the list: Abolish abortion in Texas. Just a few notches below: Fund alternatives.

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com


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