Faith-based anti-abortion groups are strategizing around cashing in on the trillion-dollar federal coronavirus relief bill — while Planned Parenthood is apparently left out in the cold.
Thousands of facilities that try to convince women to continue their pregnancies are being advised on how to apply to a program that helps small businesses cover employee payroll and expenses through the coronavirus pandemic. These facilities, known as pregnancy centers, are typically Christian nonprofits. They offer services like pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and baby supplies.
They do not refer or perform abortions, and some refuse to provide hormonal birth control. Many are explicitly opposed to abortion.
In early April, Care Net, which supports a network of over 1,000 pregnancy centers, hosted a webinar that taught attendees how to take advantage of the $349-billion program, called the Paycheck Protection Program. And a recent post on the website of Heartbeat International urged the network’s roughly 1,800 pregnancy centers in the United States to apply for it.
“Experts believe this program will be more popular than toilet paper, so act fast!” executive Tony Gruber wrote. Heartbeat International also hosted a webinar on the subject, which was not open to the public. (The organization didn’t reply to a VICE News request for comment.)
These loans, which can be as large as $10 million, are overseen by a federal agency known as the Small Business Administration. They may also be forgiven if an organization uses the money to hire and keep enough of its employees.
By law, the Small Business Administration doesn’t dole out business loans to nonprofits or to businesses that are “principally engaged” in instructing or spreading religious beliefs, even if they’re in a secular setting. But thanks to COVID-19, that’s changed: Faith-based nonprofits, like pregnancy centers, can now apply for coronavirus relief through the CARES Act package.
And they will not face restrictions on their religious liberties for doing so. At pregnancy centers that are affiliated with Care Net, all staff, regular volunteers, and volunteers who interact with clients must “have made a profession of faith to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord,” according to Care Net’s standards of affiliation.
“Simply put, a faith-based organization that receives a loan will retain its independence, autonomy, right of expression, religious character, and authority over its governance,” a Small Business Administration FAQ reads. “No faith-based organization will be excluded from receiving funding because leadership with, membership in, or employment by that organization is limited to persons who share its religious faith and practice.”
“It’s only because of the CARES Act that they’re even in the mix for these new loan products,” said attorney Sally Wagenmaker, whose law firm Wagenmaker & Oberly provides counsel to nonprofits. Wagenmaker led Care Net’s recent webinar about financial survival and COVID-19, and she said her clients — which include pregnancy centers — are definitely interested in receiving aid.
“Everybody’s interested in these loans,” Wagenmaker said. “It turns into free money.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1.1 million applications to the program have been approved, for loans totalling more than $257 billion. The Small Business Administration didn’t reply to a VICE News inquiry about how many of those applications belong to faith-based nonprofits.
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) — which provides legal counsel, education, and training for more than 1,500 pregnancy centers — has advised its members that the funds exist, but it has not urged them to necessarily apply.
“Each pregnancy center makes such decisions on a case-by-case basis through their boards,” NIFLA President Thomas Glessner told VICE News in an email through a representative. In fact, he said, NIFLA has never recommended that its member centers reach out for government aid.
But this wouldn’t be the first time some pregnancy centers receive federal funding. Such facilities have won an unprecedented embrace from the Trump administration. Last year, for the first time, the administration gave $1.7 million from Title X, the only federal program dedicated to funding family planning, to Obria Medical Clinics. That Christian organization runs a chain of what it calls “community care clinics,” none of which perform or refer for abortions, birth control, or condoms.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration also blocked healthcare providers who refer patients for abortions from receiving money from Title X. Planned Parenthood refused to obey that mandate and ended up leaving the program, losing an estimated $60 million in the process.
Now, abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, are feeling the additional financial squeeze of social distancing and isolation measures. Planned Parenthood of Greater New York has furloughed or laid off more than 240 employees as it reckons with losses of $32 million, local news outlet the City reported. Eleven of its 28 locations have temporarily closed.
A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood’s national office told VICE News that they didn’t know if any of its dozens of affiliates, which are scattered across the country, have tried to apply for Small Business Administration loans. When VICE News reached out to multiple affiliates, those requests for comment were declined, went unanswered, or were redirected to Planned Parenthood’s national offices.
But those affiliates could be easily shut out of the loans, according to experts who reviewed the law.
Technically, nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees are eligible. But Trump’s Small Business Administration has been given broad latitude to decide who qualifies as “small” enough to deserve its loans. And the agency could decide that Planned Parenthood’s affiliates make up one mammoth organization, rather than individual groups — a determination that would likely doom their loan applications.
At least one Republican seems certain that will happen. Shortly after the coronavirus bailout package first passed the Senate, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a diehard abortion opponent, tweeted that he’d been “assured Planned Parenthood will still NOT be eligible” for government aid.
“The Trump administration and Republican Congressional leadership once again used this must-pass relief bill to advance their anti-abortion agenda,” Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the organizations advocacy and political arm, said in a statement at the time. “The bill gives the Small Business Administration broad discretion to exclude Planned Parenthood affiliates and other non-profits serving people with low incomes and deny them benefits under the new small business loan program.”
Access to abortion is already imperiled in a coronavirus-ridden United States. Officials in a handful of conservative states have declared that most abortions are elective or non-essential, and tried to keep them from taking place while the pandemic rages. Courts have issued order after order to keep these bans from going into effect, but the legal whiplash has reportedly delayed hundreds of patients’ abortions and driven some to travel out of state for the procedure.
Some pregnancy centers, meanwhile, have remained open, even in states where officials issued bans on abortion due to the coronavirus, VICE News found earlier this month.
Alice Huling, counsel at the Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group that supports abortion rights, fears that excluding Planned Parenthood from government aid could fracture access to healthcare across the United States — which is already in the middle of a clear healthcare crisis.
“That’s a really troubling reality, where the government is funding organizations based on sort of an ideological belief and not funding organizations that are the mainstay of health care, for a lot of especially lower-income Americans,” Huling said. “I hope that this is not a pattern that we continue seeing going forward.”
Cover: Pro-life demonstrators listen to US President Donald Trump as he speaks at the 47th annual "March for Life" in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2020. (Photo by Roberto SCHMIDT / AFP) (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)