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State-funded pregnancy center conflates religious, educational material


While faith-based “crisis pregnancy centers,” or CPCs, continue to receive state and federal taxpayer dollars through the state’s Alternatives to Abortion Services Program, a Texas Independent investigation of an Austin CPC supports critics’ assertions that the nonprofits routinely blur the line between counseling and religious proselytizing.

Violations by Texas CPCs are well-documented in reports to the state by Texas Pregnancy Care Network, the nonprofit contractor charged with running the program — though lax oversight rules have ensured that offending CPCs are in no real danger of forfeiting government funds.

For example, according to reports obtained by the Texas Independent through public information requests, during two out of three site visits by TPCN inspectors, Travis County-based CPC Austin LifeCare (ALC) was found to have failed to label and separate its spiritual materials from its education materials. Plus, during a recent informational training session — attended by a Texas Independent reporter who identified herself beforehand as a journalist — ALC instructors inundated potential volunteers with overt religious references.

TPCN representatives did not respond to the Texas Independent’s request for comment.

In addition to its CPC, which received more than $27,500 from the state program in fiscal year 2009-2010, ALC also operates an abstinence education program called Austin LifeGuard, which has received more than $1.1 million in federal grants, as well as a Bible study and counseling program for women who have had an abortion, men whose partners had an abortion, victims of sexual abuse and those who “need healing from sexual sin,” according to ALC’s website.

ALC Executive Director Pam Cobern said Austin LifeGuard no longer receives government grants, and is now funded entirely through private donations, as is the Bible study program.

During a June 2009 visit to ALC’s primary CPC location in north-central Austin, a TPCN “evaluation coordinator” noted several violations requiring corrective actions, including failure to post a client non-discrimination policy, lack of contact information on its client grievance policy, insecure storage of client files and failure to label and separate educational and spiritual materials. TPCN’s official report, dated in late September 2009, indicates that the problems had been rectified.

A followup visit to ALC in June 2010 by the TPCN inspector showed ALC to have corrected its earlier problems, though there were a handful of minor paperwork errors that resulted in loss of some reimbursement to ALC. As is the case in a large number of reports on CPC visits, the TPCN inspector writes that ALC “is a valuable and much needed resource” for the community.

In September 2010, a TPCN inspector visited ALC’s second location, this one in east Austin, in the community outreach center for Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church. As in the first site visit to ALC, the TPCN inspector cited ALC for failing to label and separate educational and spiritual materials. The report, dated October 2010, indicates that the problem was later corrected.

During an ALC training session in mid-February 2011, ALC leaders repeatedly injected religion into their instructions to volunteers.

For example, when a volunteer asked what to do if a client wants an abortion, an ALC leader** **responded: “That is against what we are about here…Prenatal care is very big for us…If they do decide to make that choice…tell them to trust God, he’s got a bigger plan.”

The ALC leader then told the volunteer to suggest that the client read the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet. The booklet, issued by the Department of State Health Services, includes graphics depicting the different stages of a pregnancy, in addition to other information on pregnancy and abortion — including the scientifically dubious assertion of a possible link between abortion and breast cancer.

According to the booklet, “There is agreement that this issue needs further study.” That conclusion does not exactly mesh with information from the National Cancer Institute, whose website states that evidence compiled through studies over the past decade “still does not support early termination of pregnancy as a cause of breast cancer.”

While “God” was mentioned to the point of excess in the ALC training session, Christian-specific references were included also. Leaders told volunteers to “handle people as Christ would,” and show clients they could be “set free” from the ‘shame of abortion’ through the “healing of Jesus Christ.” When referencing a statistic about evangelicals who have had abortions, an ALC Bible study leader said, “There are lots of us Christians that go through it too.”

Created by the state Legislature in 2005, Texas’ Alternatives to Abortion Services Program has spent $11.7 million — diverted from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and state general revenue — with nearly $7 million going to 33 nonprofits, 32 of which have Christian affiliations, as the Texas Independent has previously reported.

Most CPCs provide free counseling and sonograms for pregnant women, with the intent to dissuade them from having an abortion. Several reports, including annual studies by pro-abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, criticize some CPCs for using deception or intimidation to prevent women from accessing the full range of reproductive health options. A 2006 report commissioned by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) showed that federally funded CPCs intentionally misled teenage clients and dispensed medically inaccurate information in an effort to prevent their right to choose.

In January 2011, the San Antonio Express-News reported that local CPC A Woman’s Haven — which has received more than $33,300 from the state program — was showing clients “a video that relayed inaccurate information about abortion along with a religious message.”

According to the Express-News, the reporter’s visit to the CPC “raised questions about whether it abides by federal funding rules that prohibit the inappropriate promotion of religion as well as its own monitoring agency’s rules against the spreading of false information about abortion.”

Here are copies of TPCN’s reports on ALC:

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