I read last week that the North Carolina General Assembly is preparing, yet again, to send (depending on how the budget cycle unfolds) either hundreds of thousands or millions of state dollars to something called “crisis pregnancy centers.” Such centers don’t provide traditional health care counseling. They are often staffed largely by unlicensed volunteers and are not subject to medical facility regulation. Their mission apparently is to convince women not to get an abortion.
A national report published by Dr. Amy Bryant and Dr. Jonas Swartz of the UNC School of Medicine, published last year in the AMA Journal of Ethics, described the centers as “organizations that seek to intercept women with unintended pregnancies who might be considering abortion.” Because the “religious ideology of the center owners and employees takes priority, women do not receive comprehensive, accurate, evidence-based clinical information about available options.” Their propagation of misinformation “should be regarded as an ethical violation that undermines women’s health,” the doctors concluded.
The Asheville Citizen-Times has reported extensively on a local legislatively-funded crisis pregnancy center, Mountain Area Pregnancy Services. Pregnant women at the center get information only about adoption and parenting. The availability of abortion or contraception is never broached.
“When women facing one of the most critical decisions of their lives walk trough the door, portraits of Jesus cradling a newborn baby welcome them inside. Crosses dangle from the necklaces of staff, who often speak of the importance of religion in their lives. Most everything about Mountain Area Pregnancy Services reminds visitors it is a Christian organization. ‘We respect life and we want to protect life, says Debbie Hrncir, a MAPS board member. ‘We want to show women who come here why life matters and why that organism inside them is living and is a human being.”
Counseling is offered “from a biblical perspective,” the Citizen-Times reported. Staff members explained: “This is our ministry.”
Republican Sen. Ralph Hise, who directed a $250,000 appropriation to Mountain Area Pregnancy Services last year, said it is an “incredible” investment. Hise is the pro-life senator who has worked so diligently in recent years to kick eligible children off the food stamp rolls, though it saves North Carolina nothing because the federal government pays the bill. Sen. Hise, and the rest of what Republican Rep. Holly Grange of Wilmington calls “the middle-age white man’s club,” seem to believe North Carolina women need a lot of legislatively-sponsored counseling.
Dr. Bryant argues that “until taxpayers can be assured that these centers conform to ethical standards of licensed medical facilities, offer sound medical advice, and do not lead to harm, states should refrain from directly or indirectly funding them.” Her national study indicated crisis centers sometimes offer “counseling that is misleading or false” and their “abortion and contraceptive” advice “falls outside accepted medical standards.”
I’m not competent to assess the claims of doctors Bryant and Swartz, though I admit I’m inclined to believe them. I do, though, have a passing familiarity with American constitutional law. I have taught it for 40 years. The state of North Carolina has no business, and it has no authority, to fund an agency’s “biblical ministry.” That is true no matter how well motivated the government-funded recipients may be or how crucial the role of religion might have become in their lives. Religion and government, in the United States, are to be kept separate — even when the religion is the one that North Carolina Republicans prefer.