Minnesota lawmakers propose bill to regulate state-funded crisis pregnancy centers
Crisis pregnancy centers, like Birthright of Rochester, received almost $3 million in taxpayer funds in 2022. Soon, sharing only medically accurate information could be a prerequisite for funding.
ST. PAUL — Anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers receive almost $3 million in taxpayer funds each year with little regulation. Minnesota lawmakers, including Minnesota Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, are pushing to change that.
There are 85 crisis pregnancy centers in Minnesota — nonprofit, often faith-based medical clinics that provide free services such as ultrasounds, pregnancy tests and counseling sessions to discuss pregnancy options, all of which can be attractive to patients facing unplanned pregnancies. But they also often seek to deter patients from obtaining abortion care.
In August, the Post Bulletin published an investigation detailing pervasive medical misinformation that crisis pregnancy centers, some of which are state-funded, espouse, including exaggerated abortion risks, inaccurate ultrasound readings, and unfounded claims that taking a high dose of progesterone instead of the prescribed drug sequence can “reverse” a medication abortion.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has since issued a consumer alert against crisis pregnancy centers , warning Minnesotans that the centers mislead, misinform and deceive people.
Crisis pregnancy centers are currently funded through the Positive Alternatives Grant Program, created by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2005. The program grants money to prenatal organizations, but only if they promote pregnancy options outside of abortion.
The new bill, H.F. 289, which was introduced Jan. 11 by House Rep. Liz Olson and co authored by Liebling and others, would modify the program and rename it Positive Pregnancies — expanding eligibility to include organizations that discuss abortion with patients in addition to other pregnancy options. It would also increase oversight of the grantees, including a requirement that centers staff licensed professionals, give abortion referrals upon request and only share “medically accurate information” with patients.
This isn’t the first time Minnesota lawmakers have tried to increase government oversight of crisis pregnancy centers. They proposed a similar amendment in 2019, but it never made it past the conference committee.
“We want to do a lot better in this state, frankly, to make sure that pregnancies are healthy, that we reduce those disparities that we've been hearing about, and that we provide support to people when they decide to have a family,” Liebling said in a House Committee Meeting Thursday. “That's really important to all of us.”
Liebling is chairwoman of the Health Finance and Policy Committee.
However, during the meeting, some bristled at the proposed changes. Minnesota House Rep. Anne Brindley, a Republican from North Branch, called the bill “absurd” and “bizarro.”
“It creates not only unnecessary, but careless barriers to curb recipients maintaining their grant funding,” said Lynesha Caron of Pregnancy Choices, a crisis pregnancy center in Apple Valley. “If the current recipients of this grant lose funding because we choose not to refer for abortions, who will step in to fill the gaps that we are collectively filling?”
Jennifer Meyer, executive director of Options for Women East, a crisis pregnancy center in St. Paul, said she was also concerned about losing funding under the new bill’s provisions.
“We uphold the dignity of human life,” Meyer said. “By forcing us to provide referrals for abortion, this bill is in direct opposition to our core values.”
However, many others who testified said they saw the language modifications as expanding rather than limiting their options. For example, the changes mean that discussing abortion with patients and making referrals would no longer be a disqualifier for medical clinics looking to apply for funding.
“We believe that every pregnant person deserves support without conditions, information without bias or restrictions, and resources that meet their needs,” said Megan Peterson, executive director of Gender Justice, a legal and policy advocacy organization in St. Paul.
Deborah Herman Juda, a registered nurse, testified that when she was employed last year at two different reproductive health clinics — one of which was a grant-funded center — she was troubled by the discrepancies.
She said while she was at the grantee clinic, she was forced to alter her clinical practice. She could connect her patients with prenatal care or give them names of adoption agencies, but she was prohibited from helping a patient schedule an abortion. Meanwhile, at the nongrantee clinic she could speak freely with her patients, discuss all pregnancy options and make referrals for necessary services.
“Before my nursing career, I was a doula and midwife,” Juda said. “I love all things related to child bearing and that’s why I’m asking you to pass the Positive Pregnancy Support Act, which could fund these services at many more clinics, clinics that are doing great work that refer patients for all pregnancy options, including abortion.”
Some proponents of the bills are advocating for these changes based on personal experience.
Minnesota Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul, co-author of the bill, shared during the meeting that a crisis pregnancy center she once visited didn’t share that she had an ectopic pregnancy after giving her an ultrasound and insisted she continue on with the pregnancy. The fertilized egg cannot survive in an ectopic pregnancy and, if left untreated, the growing tissue can cause life-threatening bleeding, according to Mayo Clinic in a description of the condition on its website.
Her said her decision to visit a reproductive health clinic afterwards, with licensed medical professionals who correctly read her ultrasound and compassionately talked her through her pregnancy decision, was what she needed as a patient.
“Having all the information, medically accurate information while making my decision, made a difference in my life,” Her said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the authorship of the bill.