When Georgia’s now-infamous 6-week abortion ban passed earlier this year, the law stood in stark contrast with the state’s devastatingly high maternal mortality rate (the 48th worst in the country) and Georgia’s decision not to expand Medicaid to ensure more people get health coverage.
But a clearer bellwether for this ban came three full years prior, when the state chose to fund fake abortion clinics, called “crisis pregnancy centers.” State Sen. Renee Unterman crafted Senate Bill 308 to establish the Positive Alternatives for Pregnancy and Parenting Grant Program. Republicans voted unanimously for the bill, and the program went into effect in 2017. According to data the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) provided to VICE, 16 of these clinics have or will receive at least $6.7 million in funds before June 2020.
Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are nonprofits that are typically religiously affiliated and claim to provide free, legitimate medical services but actually use deceptive language on their websites and in their advertisements to get pregnant people considering abortion to walk through their doors. Once there, staff members and volunteers who typically lack medical training give the client faith-based misinformation about abortion, dissuade them from terminating their pregnancy, or tell them they have more time to think about it.
CPCs all over the state, both in rural and urban areas, are benefiting from taxpayer funds. According to documents obtained from DPH, the top three beneficiaries are Pregnancy Aid Clinic and A Beacon of Hope in the metro Atlanta area and Caring Solutions of Central Georgia in Macon, Georgia—they have received a total of $892,256, $878,433, and $767,500 respectively since 2017.
Unterman said she wrote SB 308 so that pregnant people could make "better decisions" (she sponsored the abortion ban in the state senate to “ensure babies are saved and given the opportunity to have a fruitful, meaningful life”), but many of her Democratic counterparts beg to differ, including state Rep. Renitta Shannon, who’s been open about her own abortion.
“If a woman knows she does not want to carry a pregnancy, and you are doing things to delay her being able to get the abortion that she knows she wants, that’s very dangerous,” Shannon told VICE. “You’re running out the clock on her, and it’s never a good situation when women are forced into birthing.”
Shannon asserted that the role CPCs play in delaying abortions until they can no longer get the procedure in the state (20 weeks in most cases) is contributing to Georgia’s maternal mortality rate. In Georgia, Black women are 2.3 times more likely than white women to die due to childbirth-related causes.
Knowledge of the myriad reproductive oppressions faced by Black women in Georgia and the harm that fake abortion clinics may cause spurred Shannon to write a bill in 2019 to repeal the Positive Alternatives program, House Bill 188. Shannon and her co-sponsors are representative of who’s been spearheading the movement for reproductive health, rights, and justice in the state for decades: Black women. Four of HB 188’s six sponsors—Shannon, State Rep. Park Cannon, Rep. Jasmine Clark, and Rep. Pam Stephenson—are Black. These women are determined to get the bill a hearing in the state legislature during its 2020 session.
Cannon, who was a part of the movement that fought to kill SB 308 in 2016, pointed to the Positive Alternatives program’s one-page annual reports from fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019 as a sign of the state’s lack of transparency in revealing how grants are being spent.
“When it comes to reproductive health, Republicans are not looking to compromise. Instead, they’re looking to push their own extremist agenda,” said Cannon, who's also a doula. “We know this because when SB 308 was being passed, we had women of lower economic means at the table, we had women of color at the table, but they were ignored.”
Republicans not only ignored the lived experiences of those and other women, but also the findings of public health professionals.
Andrea Swartzendruber, a public health professor at the University of Georgia, began looking into CPCs during the SB 308 legislative battle and has been researching them ever since. She led the creation of the Crisis Pregnancy Center Map, which logs all CPCs in the country. There are currently 2,537 locations on the map, including 91 in Georgia alone. Finding a fake abortion clinic in Georgia is much easier than accessing an actual one; as of 2017, only 26 facilities provide abortion in the state.
Along with creating a map of CPCs, Swartzendruber and her co-investigators found that these facilities pose potential risks to individuals, to families, and to public health and that they often market their services to young people, people of color, and low-income people—those who are already disproportionately impacted by adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Her team has a paper under review that examines the association between states’ support for CPCs, the number of CPCs in a state, and states’ restrictions on abortions.
“Our data thus far suggests that having a greater number of crisis pregnancy centers by state in 2018 predicted introduction of legislation in the first half of 2019 that would have banned all or most abortions,” Swartzendruber said.
Swartzendruber has also found that local, state, and federal government support for CPCs is on the rise. More states than ever are adopting grant programs like Positive Alternatives and more public schools are contracting with CPCs to provide abstinence-only sex ed programming to students. Title X, a federal family planning program, has undergone major rule changes under President Trump and now allows funds to be awarded to fake abortion clinics. They’re even gaining legal protections, as evidenced by the Supreme Court case, NIFLA v. Becerra, that affirmed the First Amendment right of CPCs by striking down a California law regulating the facilities.
Clark first learned about CPCs when one of her constituents, appalled by her child’s school system allowing CPCs to teach sex education, approached her about sponsoring a bill that would require public schools to provide medically accurate sex education. Clark ended up sponsoring that bill for the 2019-2020 legislative cycle in addition to becoming a co-sponsor for the bill to repeal CPC funding after a meeting with Shannon at the state capitol.
“I did not hesitate to sign onto HB 188 because I firmly believe that you give people their options, and you let them decide, but what you don’t do is mislead them down a specific path that you would prefer for them to go. If that’s what you’re going to do, I don’t think the state should be funding your mission,” Clark told VICE.
At the start of the 2019 legislative session, Cannon says that Democrats were told by Republican leadership that no bills related to abortion would receive a hearing. Yet, only a few weeks after the session began, Republicans held hearings for the 6-week abortion ban, which was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on May 7 despite heavy opposition from Democratic legislators and grassroots Black women-led organizations such as SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and Feminist Women’s Health Center. Those groups are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the bill's constitutionality and they also filed a successful request for an injunction to stop the abortion ban from taking effect on January 1, 2020.
Energy that could’ve gone toward advocating for CPCs to be defunded instead had to be funneled into fighting the abortion ban this year. Despite Republican majorities in both chambers, the bill’s sponsors are prepared to go to bat for HB 188 once the legislative session begins in January, with hopes that Georgians who believe in reproductive freedom are ready, too.
“Georgians have said over and over again that we need to expand Medicaid, we know we have a maternal mortality crisis, we know we have a crisis of specialists in Georgia for reproductive healthcare, so they need to be demanding that their tax dollars be used to actually go towards those issues rather than fake clinics,” Shannon said.
The bill's sponsors are also gearing up for a "people’s hearing" that will take place on Facebook early next year to increase awareness about the legislation and to enable oft-ignored constituents to have a voice in the process.
“Many of the younger legislators in metro Atlanta, Democratic legislators, have been very intentional about holding people’s hearings,” Cannon said. “People’s hearings are not a novel concept in America, but in the state of Georgia, they seem to be something quite new. What we’re finding is that we’re able to bring people in of all identities, orientations, levels of ability, and comfortability with public speaking and hear them out by hosting people’s hearings.”
For the Black women lawmakers seeking to end state funding for fake abortion clinics, this fight is both personal and political. They say they’re prioritizing HB 188 to help end reproductive injustices in their own lives and in their communities.
“As a doula, I work with pregnant women who are always asking me for resources on how to get another ultrasound just to double check that everything is developing correctly with their fetus, and unfortunately, when they Google ‘free ultrasounds,’ crisis pregnancy centers show up,” Cannon said. “I really hope that with this legislation, we will be able to give more of an explanation to all women that just because you’re looking for something free does not mean that you have to be misled.”
This story, part of a series on reproductive injustices in Georgia, was supported by Press On's Freedomways Reporting Project fellowship.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.