According to new analysis conducted by The Guardian that synthesizes data released by the U.S. Small Business Administration on the loans doled out earlier this year as part of the paycheck protection program (PPP), crisis pregnancy centers received between $4 million and $10 million in forgivable federal loans. The money comes despite the fact that the centers have a reputation for frequently being fronts for Christian evangelism and sham medical advice, and signals that the Trump administration is eager to continue to use the coronavirus crisis to buoy its own anti-abortion policies.
Overwhelmingly, crisis pregnancy centers masquerade as full-service health clinics in order to give women the impression that they will be able to access a full range of abortion services. And while they do offer services like free pregnancy testing, low-cost STD screenings, and ultrasounds, patients are also typically inundated with bogus information about the medical risks of abortion and then manipulated into considering other options (while never being offered access to the procedure itself).
In an article for the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics, Amy G. Bryant, MD, MSCR and Jonas J. Swartz MD, MPH, write that crisis centers display a “lack of patient-centered care and deceptive practices” that make them “legal but unethical.”
“Although crisis pregnancy centers enjoy first amendment rights protections [part of the U.S. Constitution], their propagation of misinformation should be regarded as an ethical violation that undermines women’s health,” the authors claim.
The centers are also lended an air of legitimacy by their ability to get government funding in the first place: According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, sham healthcare clinics in at least 12 states receive direct state funding, which helps to create “the false impression that fake health centers are part of the mainstream medical community.”
Increasing funding to crisis centers is just one of the ways Republicans have been able to smuggle anti-choice policy into the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law by President Trump in March. In addition to the increased funding meted out to anti-abortion “health clinics” through the PPP, the CARES act also ferried in a provision granting the SBA "broad discretion" to exclude Planned Parenthood from receiving benefits under the small business-loan program, which it later used as permission to try to wrest over $80 million in subsidized loans from the nonprofit health provider.
"It has become shamefully clear that not even a global pandemic will stop the Trump administration or Republican Congressional leaders from attacking access to reproductive care," Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told Refinery29 in May.
The SBA loans spurred a lobbying rush in early spring, with businesses — including crisis health centers — jockeying for a position to receive massive cash infusions.
“Experts believe this program will be more popular than toilet paper, so act fast!” Tony Gruber, the chief financial officer of the anti-abortion group Heartbeat International, wrote in a promotion for an April webinar for members.
According to The Guardian, at least one of the clinics approved for PPP funding — the Obria clinic in San Jose, CA — had already received millions in federal funding. Its founder and CEO Kathleen Eaton Bravo has been known to parrot the conspiracy theories promoted by white supremacists. In a 2015 interview with the Catholic World Report, Bravo said abortion “threatens our culture’s survival,” continuing, “Take the example of Europe. When its nations accepted contraception and abortion, they stopped replacing their population. Christianity began to die out. And, with Europeans having no children, immigrant Muslims came in to replace them.”
These continued efforts to use the pandemic to strengthen anti-abortion policy at the federal level come as governors in nine states have attempted to use the crisis as cover to ban abortion access. After bans were enacted in Arkansas, Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia, however, federal lawsuits by groups like the ACLU resulted in the reversal of those restrictions, meaning that the first round of pandemic-era abortion bans are no longer in effect. But with new challenges to abortion all but guaranteed to crop up in the future, abortion advocates will have to stay as vigilant as ever in the fight to guarantee women access to reproductive healthcare.