HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — For nearly 30 years, Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania have approved millions of taxpayer dollars for an anti-abortion program. Now the state's new governor plans to end the contract as the organization that distributes those funds and other groups like it gain attention since the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Pennsylvania plans to end on Dec. 31 its longstanding contract with the nonprofit Real Alternatives, the first organization in the nation to secure significant state and federal subsidies to support anti-abortion counseling centers. Under the program, Real Alternatives distributed the state and federal funds to dozens of Pennsylvania centers, including Catholic Charities, anti-abortion counseling centers and maternity homes, which provide support and housing for pregnant women.
Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said in a statement his administration would not “continue that pattern” of subsidizing the organization, saying he was steadfast in defending abortion access.
“We will ensure women in this Commonwealth receive the reproductive health care they deserve,” he said.
The news shocked Eileen Artysh, the executive director of St. Margaret of Castello Maternity Home, which receives money through Real Alternatives to provide housing, materials and parenting counseling. While it's not their entire budget, the loss of funding will impact the center’s longevity, she said.
Artysh said many pregnant women who come to the maternity home have already made their choice to have the baby.
“Until there’s that last penny left, I’m in this for the long haul,” she said. “And the moms that we help — I can’t imagine deserting any of them.”
Pennsylvania was the first state to enact an official abortion alternative program in the mid-’90s. Helmed by then-Gov. Bob Casey, an anti-abortion Democrat, the state began funding alternatives in tandem with a preexisting program that subsidized Planned Parenthood’s services for women’s health. The funding for both programs had continued under both Republican and Democratic governors in the years since.
Real Alternatives’ network of centers has seen about 350,000 women at 1.9 million office visits in Pennsylvania, the organization said in a statement. Last year, Pennsylvania sent about $7 million to the group, which distributed those funds to more than 70 centers.
At one point, Real Alternatives was overseeing programs in Indiana and Michigan, and it inspired other states to find ways to fund organizations like it using taxpayer money. Even as Pennsylvania is poised to stop funding the program, the state's move continues to have an impact nationwide.
Michelle Kuppersmith, the executive director for Campaign for Accountability, a watchdog group that has filed complaints against Real Alternatives' use of taxpayer dollars, said Shapiro did the right thing by ending the contract.
“Now, just as many states unfortunately looked to Pennsylvania as a model for letting these programs into their states, we urge other states to follow suit in eliminating this spending that is not just wasteful, but actively harmful to the health of their citizens," she said.
Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars across the U.S. have been sent to such organizations, which are typically religiously affiliated. Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion last year, Republican-led states have sent more tax dollars to what are sometimes called “crisis pregnancy centers,” while Democratic-leaning states apply more scrutiny to them.
In Tennessee, which has a near-total abortion ban, legislators approved $20 million in funding for a grant program. Republicans said the money would support struggling families because women could tap into the centers’ parent counseling classes, diaper banks and other services.
Similarly, Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed doubling the funds for a state program designed to help fund the centers, which launched last year with $500,000 just before Roe was overturned.
In Florida, lawmakers upped the amount the centers could seek from $4.5 million to $25 million for the 2023-24 fiscal year. And governors in Arkansas and West Virginia signed off on spending $1 million on the centers over the next fiscal year.
Meanwhile, Democratic-led state have tried to thwart the centers, which for years have been accused of providing misleading information about abortion and contraception — for example, suggesting that abortion leads to mental health problems or breast cancer.
Colorado lawmakers made it a “deceptive trade practice” for an organization to advertise that they offer abortions or emergency contraceptives when they do not. But a similar law in Illinois was blocked by a federal judge, who said it violated the First Amendment.
Massachusetts set aside $1 million to launch a public education campaign focused on warning the public of potentially misleading claims from the centers. And in Vermont, pregnancy centers will now be subject to the state’s existing consumer protection laws – which prohibits false and deceptive advertising.
Even with the scrutiny, the centers have received strong support from those who benefited from their services.
Alyssa MacAfee, 26, was one of them. She was homeless, jobless and in early recovery when she found out she was pregnant. She came to St. Margaret’s in Pennsylvania six months pregnant and stayed until her daughter was around 5 months old.
“Everyone was definitely looking at my situation like, ‘You cannot bring a baby into the world right now,’ but I knew that I wanted to,” she said.
MacAfee said she found the organization to be welcoming; she felt it was for people that had already decided to pursue parenthood.
Since she's left, MacAfee has a job, an apartment and even some of the diapers provided by Saint Margaret.
“It turned out to be the biggest blessing life has ever given me,” she said.
About $8 million in state subsidies hangs in the balance this year as Pennsylvania completes its budget, with the Shapiro administration looking to send the money to other women’s health providers. Abortion opponents called Shapiro’s decision harmful, and Republicans said the option of using the money for other anti-abortion programs will have to be part of continued budget negotiations.
“It’s sad because this is a great program, and you take this program away, abortions will substantially increase in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Kevin Bagatta, president and CEO for Real Alternatives.
Defunding the program was a key budget priority for some Pennsylvania Democrats, and abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood PA Advocates hailed the decision.
Concerns over abortion access now outweigh the good intentions centers tend to tout, said Laura Antkowiak, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
It’s “not so much about the substance of the work anymore, but who they’re aligned with and what their position is on abortion” that has politicized the centers, she said.
“In terms of the political context, I think this is part of a much larger phenomenon in which both sides of the abortion debate are battling over which service providers are going to gain access to public funding,” she said.
Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tenn. Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.