Anti-abortion lawmakers and right-to-lifers are making crisis pregnancy centers a priority in 2024 messaging.
The theme for this year’s annual March for Life and the companion legislation anti-abortion lawmakers advanced in Congress seeks to spin the national reality post-Dobbs while making one thing clear: The anti-abortion movement is in crisis communications mode.
The annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., brings disparate facets and members of the anti-abortion movement together and establishes the movement’s collective public message for the year.
At last year’s “Next Steps” march, the first since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, speakers declared the movement would not stop until abortion was banned across the country, and aggressively dismissed warnings from medical experts that abortion bans would lead to critically ill pregnant patients suffering severe injury and harm while being denied medical care.
This year’s march featured a different message. With daily reports of horrific abortion-ban injuries, polls repeatedly showing that most Americans oppose abortion bans, and the political reality that abortion rights have won in every state where they’ve been on the ballot, anti-abortion strategists are not eager to remind the public of their plans to criminalize all abortion, or of the consequences.
Instead, the theme for this year’s March for Life was “Pro-life: With Every Woman, For Every Child,” and centered anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) as its rallying cry.
According to decades of reports by scholars, advocacy groups, watchdogs and investigative reporters, crisis pregnancy centers are anti-abortion organizations that seek to reach low-income people facing unintended pregnancies to prevent them from accessing abortion and contraception, using deceptive and coercive tactics and medical disinformation, and misleadingly presenting themselves as medical facilities, despite being exempt from regulatory, licensure, and credentialing oversight that apply to healthcare facilities.
March for Life president Jeanne Mancini told this year’s participants it is a “false narrative that the pro-life movement ignores babies after birth.”
Mancini continued, “Pregnancy care centers and maternity homes across the country exist to provide support for women facing unexpected pregnancies.”
House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), a featured speaker at the rally, praised two CPC bills that the House GOP conference passed a day earlier, but did not outline a roadmap or policy priorities for the ‘pro-life’ movement this year. Johnson did echo the rally’s theme that CPCs exist “to serve and assist pregnant women”—messaging that was also front and center as congressional Republicans fast-tracked the two CPC bills in the lead-up to the Jan. 19 rally.
Messaging about the CPC industry is a public relations strategy that the broader anti-abortion movement uses in times of political crisis and bad publicity.
The Pregnant Students Right Act: Mandating Schools Promote CPCs
The first bill, called the Pregnant Students Rights Act (H.R. 6914) was introduced on Jan. 5, 2024, by Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa). It opens with an unsubstantiated “finding” that “female students enrolled at institutions of higher education and experiencing an unplanned pregnancy may face pressure that their only option is to receive an abortion or risk academic failure.” The bill would require colleges and universities to inform female students of their rights to educational accommodations for pregnancy and childbirth under Title IX and to disseminate information about “resources on campus and in the community that exist to help a pregnant student in carrying the baby to term.”
In short, the legislation would mandate schools promote anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to students; CPC industry leaders have been building campus outreach strategies and infrastructure to support a policy like HR 6914 since 2012. The bill would not require students be provided information about contraception or abortion.
On Jan. 18, the day before the march, the House passed HR 6914 by a vote of 212-207, with no Democrats in favor.
The Supporting Pregnant and Parenting Women and Families Act Will Not Actually Help Families
The second bill, the Supporting Pregnant and Parenting Women and Families Act (H.R. 6918), was introduced on Jan. 9, 2024, by Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R-Minn.) and backed by anti-abortion organizations and the U.S. Conference of Bishops. The bill would block a proposed Biden administration rule that “discriminates” against crisis pregnancy centers by prohibiting them from continuing to receive federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program primarily intended to provide cash assistance for poor families with children.
Since Roe was overturned in 2022, at least 16 states have directed more than $250 million in taxpayer funds to CPCs, including from the TANF program. The House also passed HR 6918 the day before the March for Life by a vote of 214-208 along strict party lines.
Neither bill has a chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Seeking to Change the Conversation of Harm Caused by Abortion Bans
The anti-choice movement’s decision to focus their messaging on CPCs earlier this month—both in the streets of Washington and the halls of Congress—in response to mounting evidence that abortion bans cause women severe harms reflects the movement’s longtime public relations strategy for navigating political obstacles and bad publicity.
It is well documented, for example, that the anti-abortion movement elevated CPCs in the 1990s in response to the election of Bill Clinton, the failure of the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and bad publicity associated with anti-abortion violence.
In other words, one of the functions the CPC industry serves for the broader anti-abortion movement is to offer an alternative “love them both” narrative to soften negative public perception of the movement.
So, with story after harrowing story emerging about the impact abortion bans are having on the health and very lives of women around the country, Republicans are once again promoting CPCs to navigate a mounting backlash against the Dobbs overturn of the federal right to abortion and the state abortion bans enacted in its wake.
[Republicans] have consistently undermined access to contraception, defunded on-campus childcare, and excluded information on essential abortion care from the bill they want us to vote for.Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)
Rep. Fischbach echoed this messaging in her public statement introducing the “Supporting Pregnant and Parenting Women and Families Act,” asserting that CPCs “support women who are choosing life,” and that conservatives “want to ensure those moms are supported throughout their pregnancy and empowered to raise their families.”
During a four-hour hearing about the bill, Republicans further echoed this message while also claiming that CPCs are saving taxpayer dollars, enhancing health outcomes for mothers and children, and providing quality care in rural maternal care deserts.
There is no evidence to support any of these claims. Moreover, the assertion that CPCs exist to support pregnant women and their families directly contradicts the movement’s own reporting on how CPCs are increasing spending on advertising to reach “abortion-minded women” post Dobbs, demonstrating that the CPC industry’s primary goal remains the same as it has always been: to prevent women from accessing abortion.
Democrats blasted their GOP colleagues last week for spending precious congressional time on bills that were “intentionally designed to mislead, with biased and inaccurate information, and to shame those who seek abortion care.”
Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) said, “Just as government funding was set to expire, and with allies in Israel and Ukraine waiting on crucial national security assistance, Washington Republicans are voting to limit college students’ access to comprehensive information about women’s reproductive health and to divert Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds toward harmful anti-abortion propaganda. It’s nothing short of appalling.”
Rep Ayana Pressley (D-MA) called out Republicans for “using our pregnant students as their pawns. … The young woman in college making the life-changing decision on when and how to start a family deserves comprehensive and medically accurate information.”
Pressley charged Republicans with “playing with people’s lives instead of trying to save and change and improve them … They have consistently undermined access to contraception, defunded on-campus childcare, and excluded information on essential abortion care from the bill they want us to vote for.”
Trump and the Anti-Abortion Movement
Meanwhile, as congressional Republicans and March for Life spokespeople focused their messaging on promoting CPCs, the National Right to Life Committee continued pushing its model “Post-Roe Abortion Law” to allow for civil actions against people or entities that violate abortion laws.
Now, conservative operatives are preparing to implement their “Project 2025” blueprint for a next Trump administration, to use executive and federal powers to enact nationwide abortion and contraception restrictions, the CDC to increase abortion surveillance; and the 150-year-old law Comstock Act to criminalize the mailing of anything that could be used to facilitate an abortion.
It is time for everyone watching the post-Dobbs public health catastrophe to understand that messaging about the CPC industry is a public relations strategy that the broader anti-abortion movement uses in times of political crisis and bad publicity. The movement’s goal remains the same: to ban and criminalize all abortion, nationwide.
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