New Research Shows States Diverting Federal Anti-Poverty Funds To Deceptive Anti-Abortion Centers

Anti-abortion centers, which intentionally mimic abortion clinics in order to mislead pregnant people, are receiving funding from state governments.

A new report released last week by Equity Forward reveals that lawmakers are diverting taxpayer money earmarked for impoverished mothers and children to fund anti-abortion centers (AACs) that mislead and shame pregnant people into continuing unwanted pregnancies.

More than 2,500 anti-abortion centers are currently operating throughout the United States. Sometimes called “crisis pregnancy centers” or “pregnancy resource centers,” these organizations attempt to dissuade people from abortion by using deceptive and coercive tactics, spreading medically inaccurate and biased information and trying to shame people. While some are licensed medical clinics, many are not.

“These centers use elaborately devised tactics to trick people into believing they provide abortion services. From the names they choose, which often vary only slightly from those of abortion providers, to their locations, often next to or across the street from a legitimate center, to their websites, where they list ‘abortion’ in multiple places,” said Mary Alice Carter, senior advisor at Equity Forward, a watchdog project seeking to ensure transparency and accountability among anti-reproductive health groups and individuals. 

Anti-abortion centers lie to people by telling them abortion is dangerous and causes breast cancer, depression and infertility, as well as fetal pain. And they intentionally try to deceive people into believing that they are reproductive health clinics.

“We want to look professional. We want to look businesslike. And yeah, we do kind of want to look medical. We want to appear neutral on the outside,” said anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson at a 2012 conference of Heartbeat International, an international Catholic association that supports the largest network of crisis pregnancy centers in the world. “The best call, the best client you ever get is one that thinks they’re walking into an abortion clinic. Those are the best clients that could ever walk in your door or call your center, the ones that think you provide abortions.”

“The best call, the best client you ever get is one that thinks they’re walking into an abortion clinic. Those are the best clients that could ever walk in your door or call your center, the ones that think you provide abortions.”

—Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson

Many of these centers are run by volunteers with no medical training, but the wealthy networks that support them obtain a significant amount of state and federal money with the help of anti-abortion lawmakers and government officials.

How Anti-Abortion Centers Get Taxpayer Money

According to the Equity Forward report, “Mapping Deception: A Closer Look at How States’ Anti-Abortion Center Programs Operate,” many anti-abortion centers belong to networks that have financial relationships with state health and human services agencies or participate in state-funded “Alternatives to Abortion” programs often run by anti-abortion center networks.

The report documents how anti-abortion center networks engage in dubious financial practices and Alternatives to Abortion programs award no-bid contracts by writing contracts in ways that disqualify entities better suited to providing actual health services than anti-abortion centers.

The report identifies four major patterns in anti-abortion activities in recent years:

  1. an increase in states using public dollars, both state and federal, to fund Alternatives to Abortion Programs;
  2. the misuse of those dollars by programs in state after state;
  3. the lack of oversight by states, which exacerbates that misuse; and
  4. the tactics shared by state legislatures to escalate and expand Alternatives to Abortion programs, which funnel state money to anti-abortion centers.

“AACs run unchecked, minimally monitored and yet funded with millions in several dozen states, including funding from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars,” said Carter.   

Fourteen states now have Alternatives to Abortion programs operated by state agencies and receiving state or federal funding, including Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas. These states have poured over $40 million into anti-abortion centers in these states just this year, a steep increase from past years.

“Equity Forward has investigated and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents that detail the lack of scrutiny of what happens with these funds once they leave state coffers and reveal how wasteful the operations are,” said Carter. “Yet time and time again, conservative lawmakers fund these programs, all the while simultaneously championing cuts to social service programs that actually help people.”

Ten states have used federal TANF funds to support anti-abortion centers, including Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas. The report provides details on how much money each state gives to anti-abortion centers and how they have misused these public funds.

This crisis pregnancy center (CPC) isn’t a medical clinic, but a “counseling” center. CPCs exist to try to keep women from getting abortions, and they have been known to use underhanded tactics to achieve that goal. (Brianne / Creative Commons)

“We found that Real Alternatives took more than $800,000 from state funds meant for services for low-income people and redirected it to expand its operations in other states. As a result of this expansion, the executives at Real Alternatives have seen their salaries balloon to more than $700,000 each year for just three people—with CEO Kevin Bagatta making more than $300,000 each year,” said Carter. “In comparison, a family of three in Pennsylvania is ineligible for TANF if they make more than $403 each month (or $4,836 per year). In addition, while touting their support with ‘diapers and clothing’ for new parents, material assistance is capped at $24 per client.”

According to a Guardian analysis, Missouri instituted harsh new restrictions on welfare eligibility in 2016, resulting in more than 71 percent of beneficiaries dropping out of the program. Meanwhile, Missouri has siphoned $26 million of TANF funds to anti-abortion centers since 2017. The average monthly benefit for a poor family in Missouri is $256.

In addition to obtaining state funds through Alternatives to Abortion programs and appropriating TANF funds, anti-abortion centers are also attempting to obtain federal funds by applying for anti-trafficking grants and maternity group home grants, which currently have over 5 million dollars to distribute. The Charlotte Lozier Institute, a research arm of the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List, is offering assistance to anti-abortion centers applying for these grants.

Fighting Back Against Anti-Abortion and Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Over the last decade, several state and local governments have tried to regulate anti-abortion centers by passing laws requiring disclosure that they are not medical clinics or do not provide abortion. But because these centers are not medical practices, they are exempt from laws and regulations specific to medical clinics. And because they do not charge for services, they are exempt from federal and state regulations that apply to commercial enterprises. As a result, their practices are considered free speech protected by the First Amendment, which provides them a loophole to avoid scrutiny for providing inaccurate or misleading information.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court held in NIFLA v. Becerra that anti-abortion centers have a First Amendment right to engage in these deceptive practices. The case involved a California law requiring unlicensed anti-abortion centers to disclose that they were not licensed medical clinics and required licensed anti-abortion centers to post information about affordable abortion and contraception services offered by the state. The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 that both provisions of the law violated the clinics’ free speech rights under the First Amendment.

Despite this significant defeat, activists are working hard to warn people about anti-abortion centers. NARAL released a comprehensive report in 2015 about the deceptive and manipulative practices of “crisis pregnancy centers.” NARAL Virginia studied the deceptive practices of fake pregnancy centers in their state and runs a public awareness campaign, including a video with recordings of counselors manipulating people. NARAL North Carolina released a report on fake clinics in their state in 2017 and a brochure to raise awareness. NARAL in Massachusetts held a community roundtable on fake clinics.

Some activists have organized screenings of documentary films showing how fake clinics operate. The 2010 documentary 12th and Delaware portrays the conflicts between an abortion clinic and a fake pregnancy clinic at the corner of Delaware Ave. and 12th St. in Fort Pierce, Florida. The 2016 film Jackson portrays the conflicts between Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, the anti-abortion Center for Pregnancy Choices across the street, and a young mother of four children faced with another unplanned pregnancy. These two films expose the manipulative and abusive practices of fake pregnancy centers.

Activists have also organized protests against fake pregnancy clinics, in-person and online. Expose Fake Clinics trains activists to review fake clinics online, click and like accurate reviews, and speak out in their communities. Reproaction has a direct action toolkit for organizing against fake clinics.

Socialist feminist Meghan Lemay has participated in protests against fake pregnancy clinics for over a decade, starting when she was a student at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In 2011, she joined protests against the Birthright Crisis Pregnancy Center in Amherst, Massachusetts to raise awareness about its deceptive practices. Protesters chanted, “Abortion is health care; health care is a right!” and “Pro-life men have got to go, when you get pregnant let us know!” They circulated a petition asking for the Amherst Town Council to pass a bill that would require centers to disclose if they provide abortions or emergency contraception and if they have a licensed medical professional on-site. The center eventually closed.

Since then, Lemay has conducted online trainings for activists to learn about how to write reviews of fake clinics on Google or Yelp.

“Many of these fake clinics know how to manipulate search engines to be more visible online and patients visit these clinics not knowing what they really are,” said Meghan Lemay, who helps run an Expose Fake Clinics Campaign as part of the Democratic Socialists of America, which also has campaigns in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. “We can be a part of educating the public about these clinics.”

Now, with pandemic restrictions lifting, Lemay is planning to organize in-person protests in front of anti-abortion centers. “We plan to gather outside of the Clearway Clinic CPC in Springfield and hand out bags that include free pregnancy tests and an educational pamphlet with information about what Clearway really is, and where to get medically accurate health care. We may also do a banner drop.”

“We are passionate about just trying to get the word out there that these that these are not real clinics that are going to provide a full spectrum of health care services, including abortion, which people have the right to,” said Lemay.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.