Republicans push back on Biden plan to axe federal funds for anti-abortion counseling centers

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a new twist to the fight over abortion access, congressional Republicans are trying to block a Biden administration spending rule that they say will cut off millions of dollars to anti-abortion counseling centers.

The rule would prohibit states from sending federal funds earmarked for needy Americans to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which counsel against abortions. At stake are millions of dollars in federal funds that currently flow to the organizations through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, a block grant program created in 1996 to give cash assistance to poor children and prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

“Programs that only or primarily provide pregnancy counseling to women only after they become pregnant likely do not meet the … standard,” the Health and Human Services agency said in its rule proposal released late last year.

More than 7,000 comments have been submitted on the proposed rule, which includes a series of restrictions on how states would be able to spend TANF monies.

The proposal limiting funds for anti-abortion counseling centers is the Biden administration’s latest attempt to introduce federal policies that expand abortion access. Conservative states, meanwhile, have severely restricted the care since the U.S. Supreme Court stripped women of their federal right to an abortion in 2022.

Congressional Republicans this week introduced legislation that would block the Health and Human Services Agency from restricting the funds from the centers. The bill has no chance of becoming law this year.

“Pregnancy centers are an important and vital alternative for expectant mothers,” Republican Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois said Thursday during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing to mark up the legislation.

The anti-abortion counseling centers have become an increasingly popular way for conservatives to sermonize against abortions, with an Associated Press investigation last year finding that states have been sending more and more money to the programs over the last decade. More than a dozen states have given the centers roughly $500 million in taxpayer dollars since 2010. Last year, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor cut funding for all centers from the state budget.

The centers’ mission is controversial not only because workers often advise pregnant patients against seeking an abortion, but, critics say, the organizations can provide some misleading information about abortion and contraception, like suggesting that abortion can cause breast cancer. Most centers are religiously affiliated and not licensed healthcare facilities. They typically offer pregnancy tests and some offer limited medical services such as ultrasounds.

The Human Coalition, an anti-abortion organization that has locations in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas, estimates it would lose millions of dollars in funds, said Chelsey Youman, the group’s national director of public policy. Plans to expand to Louisiana and Indiana could be put on hold if the rule goes through, she added.

Youman argues that her organization helps connect women to social services, like Medicaid, while persuading them to continue with their pregnancy.

“The work we do is truly compassionate and loving care for women who are facing sometimes the most difficult moment of their life,” Youman said.

HHS is suggesting several tweaks that would change how states can use the $16.5 billion in block grants intended for the nation’s neediest families. The proposal comes on the heels of a high-profile corruption scandal in Mississippi, where $77 million in TANF funds were squandered over several years.

The restrictions would limit how much of the money ends up benefitting middle- and high-income earners, with the agency saying that the percentage of impoverished families who get cash assistance has dropped from nearly 70% in 1996 to just over 21% in 2020. The plan would restrict how states use the money for college scholarships and child care, for example.

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