COLUMBIA — Pregnancy resource centers are faith-based organizations that promote abstinence before marriage, direct pregnant women and teens to the resources they might need to carry their pregnancies to term and talk to them about their options. Their primary objective is to prevent abortions.
“It is our mission to defend the right of every pregnant woman to give birth and the right of every child to be born,” says Lori Shultz, director of Birthright of Columbia, which opened its doors in 1983.
Since 2007, Missouri’s Pregnancy Resource Center tax credits have diverted $4.4 million of state revenue to 52 centers. The state has given another $2.5 million of taxpayer funds to several of the organizations during that same time period through the state's Alternatives to Abortion grant program.
Both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly are deciding whether to extend the pregnancy resource tax credit or force it to sunset in 2015. On Tuesday, the House passed a resolution applauding the organizations’ efforts to “encourage pregnant women to make positive life choices by equipping them with complete and accurate information regarding their pregnancy options and the development of their unborn children.”
But critics say the information they distribute is riddled with inaccuracies and falsehoods and is intended to scare women and teens away from accessing options to which they are legally entitled.
"We don't think taxpayers should be forced to support organizations that distribute medically inaccurate information,” Paige Sweet, a representative of abortion rights organization NARAL Missouri, told the House Committee on Economic Development at a March hearing on extending the tax credit program. "We just really want women in Missouri to have access to comprehensive, medically accurate information, especially when they are in the very vulnerable position of facing an unwanted pregnancy.”
Staff and volunteers at the pregnancy resource centers, meanwhile, claim the risks of abortion are downplayed and even misrepresented by abortion rights advocates and abortion providers.
A comparison of literature and verbal information distributed by Columbia’s two pregnancy resource centers — Birthright of Columbia and My Life Clinic — with that being distributed by Planned Parenthood of Columbia shows several similarities among the possible risks mentioned.
However, the Planned Parenthood materials, some of which are purchased from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, contain much more information about the incidence rates for several possible complications.
Both pregnancy resource centers’ literature, meanwhile, make dubious claims about three possible outcomes — infertility, breast cancer and post-abortion mental health disorders. Although these conclusions have been drawn in several scientific studies, many of which are spotlighted by opponents of abortion, they have been widely refuted by several prominent medical institutions.
Premature delivery risk: My Life Clinic’s pamphlet, produced by the Christian, anti-abortion organization Care Net, states that, “Women who undergo one or more induced abortions carry a significantly increased risk of delivering premature in the future. Premature delivery is associated with higher rates of cerebral palsy, as well as other complications of prematurity (brain, respiratory, bowel and eye problems).”
However, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Roger Harms, an obstetrician/gynecologist and editor-in-chief of the "Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy," abortions that take place during the first trimester show no increase in future risks of preterm birth or miscarriage. There is, however, one caveat: surgical abortions, performed later in a pregnancy, can cause a weakening of the cervix or scarring on the inside of the uterus. In these cases, Harms reports, corrective surgery may be needed to enable a woman to conceive again.
Breast cancer risk: Lori Shultz, executive director of Birthright of Columbia, said during an interview that there is a connection between abortion and breast cancer. My Life Clinic has a description of the cancer link in its information packet for pregnant women, though it is crossed out with an “X” and has a disclaimer stating that “further research should be conducted before a correlation between abortion and breast cancer can be made.”
However, both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the National Cancer Institute, a U.S. government agency dedicated to cancer research, have refuted any relationship. In 2003, the National Cancer Institute convened a three-day conference of breast cancer experts to sort out what was then conflicting research on the topic. The experts debunked several studies suggesting the link exists, concluding that, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”
Mental health risk: Both Columbia pregnancy resource centers also warn of several long-term mental health problems after abortion, including suicide or suicidal ideas, difficulty in maintaining close relationships and substance abuse, among other things. Birthright of Columbia’s literature identifies these as possible symptoms of “Post-Abortion Stress.”
The American Psychological Association says there is no post-abortion mental health repercussion that isn’t also a symptom of other normal life stressors. In 2008, the association convened a task force to review several studies examining the mental health effects of abortion and found no causal relationship.
“Across studies, prior mental health emerged as the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health. Many of these same factors also predict negative psychological reactions to other types of stressful life events, including childbirth,” the report concluded.
While the risks listed in the Planned Parenthood and pregnancy resource literature are similar, the latter omits any mention of the risk level or course of treatment for those complications.
For example, both Birthright and My Life warn of the risk of perforation and cervical tears. The center materials say the risk of death is rare.
Planned Parenthood’s materials, meanwhile, state that the perforation or tearing risk is 1 in 1,000, and the death rate is “lower than 1 in 100,000," and increases with the length of the pregnancy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the risk of perforation or tearing in a dilation and curettage procedure, which account for 70 percent of the abortion procedures in Missouri, is lower than 1 in 100 — significantly higher than the Planned Parenthood literature, which was obtained from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The college says the rate of death from abortion procedures is 0.8 out of 100,000, making it less fatal than a penicillin shot. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, the risk of dying from childbirth is 15 times higher.
Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, says that women facing unintended pregnancies are already confused and upset and need the most accurate information available.
“The important thing to remember is that no woman wants an abortion. It is not something anyone wants or looks forward to,” she said. “But for women who are in the situation where they need to decide what they are going to do next, they need accurate information and they should be able to get it in our day and age.”
Patrick Malone of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States goes further when speaking about the pregnancy resource centers.
“The science they are using is really junk science or studies that can be debunked or are twisted and are meant to evoke fear,” he said.
“If you want to make someone afraid going into any medical procedure, that is easy enough to do. And if that is the only tool you have in our toolbox, you are going to stick with what works,” he said. “Fear works.”
Malone’s organization tracks sexual education and public information around the country and corrects inaccuracies. Monitoring pregnancy resource centers is a part of that, as many of them — including several in Missouri — receive federal funds to teach abstinence education workshops in public schools.
Neither Columbia center receives federal funds, but My Life Clinic has a good working relationship with local schools. It receives referrals from the guidance counselors at Rock Bridge High School and had a booth at Hickman High School’s recent health fair.
According to Carla Arinder, executive director at My Life Clinic and a former teacher, it provides them a great opportunity to warn teens about sexually transmitted diseases and the value of abstinence.
She says that they have flexibility in their messaging and can openly work to support life because they are “completely donor funded.”
The tax credit, however, “is a great benefit to us because it is an incentive to give, for a lot of reasons,” she said. My Life Clinic donors were issued $30,000 in tax credits in fiscal year 2010.
Across the state last year, donors claimed more than $1.6 million. According to the two-page filings pregnancy resource centers compile to become eligible for the credit program, they served more than 37,000 clients across the state, including women and girls facing unplanned pregnancies, their potential partners and the babies that many of them gave birth to that year.
A 2007 Missouri law banned Planned Parenthood from providing any sexual education in public schools. Three years earlier, the state also halted its short-lived program that helped the organization, and those like it, subsidize birth control and cancer screenings for low-income women across the state.
Organizations that receive Alternatives to Abortion funds are statutorily prohibited from offering or encouraging contraception.
Paula Gianino, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis and Southwest Missouri, said although the cuts in support and funding were “a very, very bitter pill to swallow,” she supports the right of pregnancy resource centers to serve their function and connect women to services to help them carry their pregnancies to term. That, she says, is also a key component of what her organization does.
However, she thinks there should be full disclosure about their religious affiliations and medical credentials. Several pregnancy resource centers, including My Life Clinic, situate themselves in medical districts or across the street from Planned Parenthood, which she believes gives them a veneer of medical legitimacy, although they are not regulated or monitored by any government entity.
“If people want to go to a religiously motivated organization that is only willing to give certain kinds of information, people should be free to do that. They are free to do that," Gianino said. “The question is whether the state should be supporting them with taxpayer dollars."
A bill currently in the state Senate — SB 204, sponsored by Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles — seeks to renew the pregnancy resource center tax credit through 2018. Another, in the House — HB 116, sponsored by Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage — would force the program to sunset in 2015.
Under current law, the pregnancy resource center tax credit will sunset on Aug. 28, 2012. There has been no public discussion of curtailing the state’s Alternatives to Abortion grant program.