West Virginia House OKs bill to fund anti-abortion centers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The GOP-dominated West Virginia House overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that would allow for taxpayer money to be funneled into anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, months after lawmakers passed a near-total ban on the procedure in one of the nation’s poorest states.

West Virginia’s is just the latest of a growing number of proposals from states across the U.S. to provide taxpayer support for the centers, which are typically religiously affiliated, free and counsel clients against having an abortion. They are generally are not licensed as medical facilities.

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An Associated Press tally based on state budget figures last year revealed that nearly $89 million had been allocated to such centers across about a dozen states. A decade ago, the annual funding for the programs hovered around $17 million in about eight states.

And that support is expected to continue to increase as many Republicans in states like West Virginia have expressed interest in expanding and creating government programs aimed at women and families after banning abortion.

West Virginia’s bill advanced to the Senate with the only “no” votes coming from eight Democrats, who said they were torn because they approved of provisions that would increase support for adoptive parents.

The bill would increase the tax credit families who adopt children in the state receive from $4,000 to $5,000 and allow adopted kids to be eligible for state-run early intervention programs, regardless of income.

Democratic Del. Evan Hansen said even though he wants to see adoptive parents receive more support, he can’t support a proposal that “diverts state dollars to push an anti-abortion, anti-contraception agenda.”

He said the bill is designed to prevent abortions from being performed in West Virginia, even for people who fall under the narrow exemptions for cases of medical emergencies or incest and rape up to a limited number of weeks, with requirements that assaults be reported to law enforcement.

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“There are women who find out that they’re pregnant and need access to a full range of advice — not just based on people’s religious belief, or based on people’s agenda, but based on evidence-based medicine,” he said.

The bill contains no information detailing how much state money crisis pregnancy centers and other anti-abortion organizations would be able to receive if the program becomes law.

If the bill passes both chambers, lawmakers will decide how much money they want to allocate to the program during the budget-drafting process later in the 60-day session, which ends March 11.

During his State of the State address last month, Republican Gov. Jim Justice announced that his proposed budget includes $1 million for crisis pregnancy centers.

Before voting against the bill Thursday, Democratic Del. Danielle Walker expressed concern about how much money the organizations could be receiving.

“We’re giving funding of no amount in the budget to medical or non-medical, religious or non-religious based help centers and there’s a lot of questions that can’t be answered,” said Walker, the only Black woman in the West Virginia Legislature and the only state lawmaker who has been open about having an abortion.

“I don’t want to make an assumption,” she continued. “I want to make sure with the maternal mortality and morbidity rate we have in West Virginia, that the person carrying the baby and the baby will have the best outcomes.”

West Virginia’s bill would allow for the state to give money to organizations that care for pregnant women and do not “perform, prescribe, refer for, encourage, or promote abortion as an option” or affiliate with any organizations that do.

According to the bill, organizations eligible for funding could include maternity homes, adoption agencies or crisis pregnancy centers.

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Organizations receiving funding would need to be registered non-profits and offer training and evaluations to employees and volunteers. They would also need to maintain policies and processes for child abuse reporting, medical emergencies and addressing client complaints.

An auditing procedure would be required to “ensure financial and operational accountability.”

The bill doesn’t specify what kind of management agency would be in charge of the program, but it does say that the organization can’t perform abortions, refer patients to abortion providers or advocate for abortions as an option for pregnant people. They also can’t “affiliate or hold any relationship with any abortion industry organization.”

In Mississippi, the state determined that funding from tax credit program passed by lawmakers last year would be disbursed by the Choose Life program, which funds crisis pregnancy centers across that state.

In a fiscal note attached to the bill, West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources estimated that the cost to contract with a management agency would be around $279,780 annually. The agency said they’d also need a full-time state employee to implement and monitor the program — an estimated cost of around $58,000 for salary and benefits.

Speaking in support of the bill, Republican Del. Riley Keaton said people who work at organizations like crisis pregnancy centers “out of the kindness of their heart, provide loving and life-affirming care in big ways and small to women in oftentimes difficult circumstances.”

But Alisa Clements, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic — an organization that wouldn’t be eligible to receive program funding — said lawmakers should focus more on providing “evidence-based resources” for parents.

Even though the vast majority of West Virginians can no longer access abortions in state, Clements said lawmakers should still “respect and support” giving people the opportunity to learn about the different options they have available to them, including abortion care.

“No one should be deceived or manipulated when seeking support for pregnancy options, parenting and health care,” she said.

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