Abortion Debate Shifts to Pregnancy Counseling Centers

Ninety miles and a mountain range away from the nearest abortion provider, pregnant women stream into a tidy storefront here where they receive free pregnancy tests, baby clothes, diapers and warnings about the alleged dangers of abortion.

At similar pregnancy resource centers in small towns and big cities nationwide, volunteers who believe abortion is murder advise women that the procedure has been linked to breast cancer and infertility.

Some states, like Oregon and New York, are trying to increase oversight of the crisis pregnancy centers out of concern that the information they provide about abortion may be biased or simply wrong.

"When women enter CPCs, they are walking into a trap," said Ikeita Cantu Hinojosa, Planned Parenthood's assistant director of government relations. "They are expecting to receive neutral, comprehensive medical care, but they're greeted with manipulation designed to coerce and scare them."

The centers say states have no right to interfere in their efforts to encourage alternatives to abortion. Public money helps them carry out their goals.

Millions of dollars from the Bush administration's "abstinence-only" effort goes to the centers. Many recipients have bought ultrasound equipment that lets expectant mothers see the earliest stages of fetal development.

Minnesota earmarks nearly $2.5 million a year for the centers, Louisiana set aside $1 million in 2006 and Pennsylvania requires that all state family planning money be matched by equal funding for groups offering abortion alternatives.

Missouri's governor, Republican Matt Blunt, signed a bill last year to allow donors to crisis pregnancy centers to get a tax break. North Dakota lawmakers recently voted overwhelmingly to allocate $200,000 per year to the centers.

"This is telling someone that they do have a choice, that here are the positives of childbirth," said Democratic North Dakota State Senator Aaron Krauter, who sponsored the bill. "The emphasis is in the counties with the largest number of abortions, so we can provide information through county social services and campus newsletters that there are alternatives to abortion services available."

Abortion rights groups have received cool receptions in states where they have pressed for legislation to monitor crisis pregnancy centers, regulate the information they provide and require tighter oversight and disclosure from centers that offer free ultrasounds.

Bills in West Virginia were left to die when the state's Legislature adjourned in March, and sponsors of the proposals are not optimistic in Texas, where bills would have required the centers to post notification that they are not licensed medical providers.

A New York bill would require centers to disclose that their pregnancy tests are available over the counter, among other provisions. The bill's backers say it will likely get bottled up in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Oregon Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, a Portland Democrat listed as one of the sponsors of a bill focused on the centers, said the issue is unfamiliar to many lawmakers. Democrats from more conservative districts say they have been under heavy pressure to vote against it, Brown said.

"I think there are a number of solutions, including administrative, executive solutions," if a bill can't get through the Legislature this session, she said. "But I think women have a right to know what kind of services they are receiving."

Crisis pregnancy centers say states should not get involved.

"The state should not be in a position to put pressure on one industry's competitor," said Diane Fell, the executive director of Astoria's Door of Hope. "We are competitors for Planned Parenthood. It's like Coke saying to Pepsi, 'You can't be on my block, go away."'

Posters of fetal development dot the walls at Door of Hope, and brochures on adoption and counseling for women who have had abortions are fanned out on tables.

Pregnant woman are told the center won't make abortion referrals. If they press further about abortion, Fell presents them with a brochure published by Care Net, the country's largest Christian pregnancy center network.

The pamphlet includes graphic descriptions of the procedure and advises that risks linked to abortion include damage to internal organs and infection. It also says, "Most studies conducted so far show a significant linkage between abortion and breast cancer."

That conflicts with the findings of the nonpartisan National Cancer Institute, which has concluded that "induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer."

The proposed Oregon legislation would require the state Health Department to collect data on any state funding going to crisis pregnancy centers, whether the centers observe medical privacy rules and if "intentionally misleading or medically and factually inaccurate information is given to clients at alternative-to-abortion organizations."

Fell resents the last part of the proposal.

"The health department refers clients to us," she said. "And so does the hospital. If we were threatening, they wouldn't refer to us."