‘Misleading’ anti-abortion programs could get $400K from Utah taxpayers

The Beehive State would join a growing number of states, the majority of which have some of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, giving money to faith-based crisis pregnancy centers.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Planned Parenthood is seen next to the Pregnancy Resource Center of Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. Clearfield Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, a frequent sponsor of anti-abortion legislation, is asking her colleagues for hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to fund controversial anti-abortion crisis pregnancy programs.

Clearfield Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, a frequent sponsor of anti-abortion legislation and fixture in anti-abortion circles, is asking her colleagues for hundreds of thousands of dollars year-after-year to fund controversial anti-abortion crisis pregnancy programs.

Those faith-based programs, which critics say give inaccurate medical information and promote “abortion reversal” treatments that can be dangerous, could cost taxpayers $400,000 a year.

Lisonbee, the House majority whip, was a sponsor of Utah’s 2020 abortion trigger law currently tangled up in court, and successfully shepherded an abortion clinic ban — also blocked — into law last year. Her latest proposal in the Legislature would add Utah to a growing list of states funding controversial anti-abortion crisis pregnancy programs.

Presenting to the Legislature’s Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee late last month, Lisonbee requested an ongoing $400,000 for two organizations — Pro-Life Utah and Pregnancy Resource Center of Salt Lake City. With the money, each would “establish a program to enhance and increase resources that promote childbirth instead of abortion,” her request reads.

While the $200,000 for Pro-Life Utah would come entirely from the state’s general fund under the request, the subcommittee reduced the Pregnancy Resource Center’s proposed allotment to an ongoing $130,000 from the state, and $70,000 in federal funding for the next three years.

Lisonbee has not responded to requests for an interview.

Utah does not allocate funding to organizations that provide abortion along with other reproductive health care, like Planned Parenthood. Those entities do, however, receive federal funding — primarily through Medicaid reimbursements and Title X family planning funding.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Planned Parenthood is seen next to the Pregnancy Resource Center of Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024.

Pro-Life Utah is one of the largest entities in the state focused on advocating against abortion. It has helped draft some of the state’s abortion restrictions and hosts the annual “March for Life” at the Capitol.

Lisonbee has been named a “pallbearer” at those gatherings and joined the group in singing hymns on the Sunday before a Utah Supreme Court hearing on the abortion trigger law last summer.

The organization parks a bright pink van outside of one of Utah’s four abortion clinics, where it offers free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and “options counseling,” according to its website.

“Vulnerable women deserve to have real choices, and we offer those real choices,” Pro-Life Utah’s president, Mary Taylor, told the subcommittee in late January.

With just a pad of concrete separating it from one of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah’s two Salt Lake City locations, Pregnancy Resource Center’s original location sits just one TRAX stop away from the University of Utah. It also recently expanded to American Fork.

Both facilities, which resemble medical clinics and are referred to as such by director Evangeline Sanders, also offer pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and “options counseling.” Its website lists other “medical services,” including “sexual health information” and “appropriate medical referrals” — including referrals to a hotline for what is described as “abortion reversal.”

Qualifying through an application process, Pro-Life Utah and Pregnancy Resource Center partner to give grants to mothers who decide to go forward with giving birth.

“With Utah’s increasing population, changing demographics and with the impending ban on elective abortions, it’s become evident that the current services provided by the PRC will be insufficient to care for the increased number of clients that will inevitably be seeking crisis pregnancy support,” George Stewart, Pregnancy Resource Center’s development director, told the subcommittee.

The clinics are not licensed by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services as either health facilities or to provide social services, a spokesperson for the department confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune, and there is not a mechanism for licensing crisis pregnancy centers. Consequently, there is minimal state oversight of their operations.

Planned Parenthood Association of Utah and Wasatch Women’s Center have abortion clinic licenses — a subcategory of health facilities licensing. A law proposed by Lisonbee last year, which is currently blocked in court, would remove that licensure category and prohibit such clinics from operating in the state.

Both Taylor and Sanders said their organizations work with a licensed OB-GYN and certified sonographers. Those credentials, Taylor added, would be provided to people seeking services upon request.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned constitutional protections for abortion outlined in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision nearly two years ago, abortion opponents have pushed for prohibitions to be enacted. With bans in dozens of states, and fights over some, like Utah’s, lingering in courts, funding crisis pregnancy centers has become the next front for anti-abortion activists.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research and advocacy organization, 14 states have enacted funding for crisis pregnancy centers and a majority of those states enforce some of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country.

There are several crisis pregnancy centers in Utah in addition to Pregnancy Resource Center and Pro-Life Utah’s “mobile clinic.”

Days after Gov. Spencer Cox signed Lisonbee’s abortion clinic ban, Stewart, of Pregnancy Resource Center, told right-wing news website The Daily Caller last March that he hoped Utah would next focus on legislation to fund his facility, saying centers like his are “best positioned to alleviate the crisis [of abortion].”

(Emily Anderson Stern | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clearfield Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee attends an anti-abortion prayer meeting at the Utah Capitol on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023.

‘Do not meet clinical standards’

David Turok, an OB-GYN and director of the University of Utah’s ASCENT Center for Reproductive Health, speaking on his own behalf, disagrees with Stewart.

Although organizations like Pro-Life Utah and Pregnancy Resource Center have some good programs, Turok said, like providing diapers, formula and other material resources to young parents, the information they give to people making life-changing decisions can be coercive, and “is not always fact-based.”

“Paying people who may or may not have training, who have no regulatory process, who are not monitored at all, who have a history of misleading people — it’s hard to understand how that is [the Legislature’s] solution,” the OB-GYN told The Tribune.

In addition to offering pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, Pro-Life Utah and Pregnancy Resource Center encourage pregnant people who have taken mifepristone — a pill ingested as the first part of a medicated abortion — to call the “Abortion Pill Reversal” helpline to access a progesterone treatment.

At the bottom of the Abortion Pill Reversal Network’s website is a disclaimer that says, “The outcome of your particular reversal attempt cannot be guaranteed.”

As he asked lawmakers for funding, Stewart focused on Pregnancy Resource Center’s efforts to convince women to reverse course after they’ve started taking abortion medication.

“Currently, the PRC has a wait time of two weeks to see abortion-vulnerable women, but we know that the majority of abortion-minded women will end their pregnancies within 72 hours of receiving the abortion pill,” Stewart said. “So in order to provide the essential services needed to better support families, the PRC must double the number of clients seen in our clinics by hiring more nurses and sonographers.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign on the exterior of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024.

Although abortion providers are required by Utah law to recite a statement telling people who have decided to have a medication abortion that they “may still have a viable pregnancy,” in addition to those patients completing an online information module, waiting 72 hours and having to obtain in-person “informed consent,” Turok said people changing their minds is “very, very uncommon.”

If someone did have regrets, Turok continued, he wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending abortion reversal because he said it is a theory with “very little data” to show that it’s safe and effective.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has taken the same stance, writing in a post on its website, “Claims regarding abortion ‘reversal’ treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards.”

There has been limited research into progesterone’s ability to reverse an abortion after someone takes mifepristone, according to a 2015 literature review published in the journal Contraception.

Of the studies that have taken place, the majority included small numbers of participants and did not have control groups, the reproductive health care journal reported, and they were not supervised by institutional review boards or ethical review committees, meant to certify the validity of results and ensure the safety of human subjects.

A study that did include such safeguards, which published its results in 2020, ended early due to safety concerns, including a quarter of participants experiencing “severe hemorrhage requiring ambulance transport to hospital.”

Pregnancy Resource Center’s Sanders, who studied medical ethics in graduate school, said the lack of research around using progesterone to attempt to reverse abortion doesn’t make her uncomfortable referring people to the hotline. She said it would be unethical to carry out a controlled, double-blind study, in which some participants receive placebos that wouldn’t counter the effects of mifepristone.

Turok also takes issue with the state funding such never-abortion approaches, saying, when medical providers interact with patients, “You tell me what is right for you, not the other way around.”

As an OB-GYN, when Turok meets a patient facing difficult reproductive decisions, he said, “I introduce myself and say, “My job is to provide you with the best medical care possible and make sure that when you leave here, you feel respected.’ And that’s a guiding principle for the work I do.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Mary Taylor, President of Pro Life Utah, holds up a sign during a pro-life protest outside Planned Parenthood in Salt Lake, Saturday, April 23, 2016.

Could the move endanger federal funding?

If the Legislature moves forward with funding the Pregnancy Resource Center as currently recommended, it would receive a total of $210,000 in federal funding — $70,000 over three years.

That money would come through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly known as TANF. But if a proposed U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rule becomes final, Utah deciding to use TANF funds to support crisis pregnancy centers could endanger the tens of millions that Utah receives from the program annually.

According to a report updated this month by Congressional Research Service, over $83 million in TANF funds were routed to Utah in fiscal 2021. More than a quarter of that money goes toward child care.

In September 2022, 4,338 Utahns were receiving TANF assistance — 3,260 of them were children.

One of the purposes of TANF is to “prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.” While HHS recommends doing that through funding programs that provide comprehensive sex education, family planning services and other pregnancy prevention programs, some states have used TANF to subsidize crisis pregnancy programs, like Utah is considering.

In a proposed rule, HHS writes, “Programs that only or primarily provide pregnancy counseling to women only after they become pregnant likely do not meet the reasonable person standard because the connection to preventing and reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies is tenuous or non-existent.” It goes on to list “crisis pregnancy centers or pregnancy resource centers” as examples that likely wouldn’t qualify.

If the rule takes effect as written and Utah is found to be improperly using TANF funds, the federal agency could make significant cuts to the help it sends struggling Utahns.

Lawmakers could give hundreds of thousands — or nothing

Lisonbee’s requests that Utah fund Pro-Life Utah and Pregnancy Resource Center is not the only way by which lawmakers could subsidize faith-based crisis pregnancy centers this session.

Logan Republican Sen. Chris Wilson is proposing a bill meant to address an adoption licensing policy shortfall that allowed an adoption agency owner who lost her license after “repeated and chronic violations” of state law to renew it and open another adoption agency. “Adoption Revisions,” or SB147, also asks lawmakers to put $245,000 toward a grant for “pregnancy support services.”

Those services, the bill says, “encourage childbirth instead of voluntary termination of pregnancy; and assist pregnant women, or women who may become pregnant, to choose childbirth whether they intend to parent or select adoption for the child.”

The Senate unanimously passed SB147, and it most recently was recommended without opposition by the House Health and Human Services Committee. It will next go to the full House for consideration.

Wilson told The Tribune that the grant would be aimed at crisis pregnancy centers. When asked about the facilities’ lack of licenses to provide services, the senator said, “We’ll definitely take a look and see whatever we can do to improve that, if we get it funded.”

After massive tax cuts over the last few years, the state’s budget is expected to be tight this year. Lawmakers have already started slashing planned funding items.

Bills with fiscal notes attached, like Wilson’s, as well as requests for appropriation, like Lisonbee’s, may end up with all, some or none of the money initially asked for.

Appropriations subcommittees will present their priorities to the Executive Appropriations Committee — of which Lisonbee is a member — early this week, and that committee will spend the next couple of weeks sorting out where money will go.