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Legislature to debate bill to give $7.5M to nonprofit for pro-life counseling

Kathy Brody, an attorney with the ACLU, speaks May 21 at a press conference at the Arizona Capitol, in which pro-choice advocates warned lawmakers not to introduce legislation to restrict abortion as legislatures in other states have. Women behind Brody are dressed in costumes from the Handmaid’s Tale, a television drama about a dystopia in which fertile women are slaves. (Photo by Andrew Howard/Arizona Capitol Times)

Kathy Brody, an attorney with the ACLU, speaks May 21 at a press conference at the Arizona Capitol, in which pro-choice advocates warned lawmakers not to introduce legislation to restrict abortion as legislatures in other states have. Women behind Brody are dressed in costumes from the Handmaid’s Tale, a television drama about a dystopia in which fertile women are slaves. (Photo by Andrew Howard/Arizona Capitol Times)

Pro-choice protestors descended on Arizona’s Capitol Tuesday with a warning for lawmakers: Don’t be like Alabama, Georgia and other states where Republicans have backed bills intended to restrict or downright outlaw abortion.

Little did they know that in the halls of the Senate and House of Representatives, those lawmakers were crafting a bill to spend millions of dollars discouraging women from having abortions.

HB2579 and SB1547, mirror bills  introduced Tuesday afternoon as senators and representatives prepared to begin debating and voting on an $11.8 billion budget, would allocate $7.5 million for pregnancy services that pro-choice advocates warn will offer a one-sided and biased take on how to handle their pregancies.

Backed by the anti-abortion lobbying group Center for Arizona Policy, the bill would create a “family health pilot program.” The Department of Health Services would distribute $2.5 million annually for the next three years to an unidentified nonprofit tasked with referring pregnant women to various health and social services.

A similar program in Texas identified social or economic challenges that women face when considering an abortion, said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy. Services will attempt to address those challenges.

“Nothing in the legislation requires a woman to carry her baby to term,” Herrod said.

But that’s explicitly what the bill encourages the pilot program to accomplish.

The services to be offered are intended to “support childbirth as an alternative to abortion,” the bill states.

And funding would be barred from use for abortion referral services, and could not be distributed to any organization that promotes or performs abortions. That means  service providors that recieve the funding won’t be allowed to suggest abortion as a choice for women, said Jodi Liggett, vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood Arizona.

“I know all this sounds super, but unfortunately the majority of crisis pregnancy centers are not neutral in their approach to women,” she said. “They don’t present all the options.”

Funding for the pilot program would be a first in Arizona. Never before has the state dedicated general fund dollars for pregnancy services, according to former state health director Will Humble, with the exception of excess lottery revenues that – when available on occasion – have been distributed to family-planning service providers.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, warned in a tweet she suspects the funds will be distributed to the Human Coalition, a Frisco, Texas-based non-profit that contracts with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission as a hotline for Alternatives to Abortion, the program on which Arizona’s pilot would be based.

The program, with an annual budget of tens of millions of dollars, offers services such as financial counseling and support groups for new parents, according to the Texas Tribune. It’s budget has grown annually since its inception in 2006, and has been praised for ensuring expectant mothers are financially prepared to care for children.

Herrod said such services could help pregnant women in Arizona .

“The intent of this bill is to help those women know what might be available to them, to help them should they choose to parent or choose to place their child for adoption,” she said.

During a Senate hearing Wednesday, Herrod said she didn’t know whether Texas’ program, or the proposed pilot in Arizona, would fund licensed health care facilities.

Liggett said the crisis pregnancy centers that are likely to receive funding through the program often provide nothing more than “medical window dressing.”

Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said she found it “quite ironic” that the Legislature didn’t know if the center in the pilot program would be licensed given that Arizona requires abortion providers to meet strict regulations.

“We’re going to be giving $7.5 million to something that we don’t even know if it’s a licensed health care facility, and I just wanted to make that point,” she said.

Herrod accused Planned Parenthood of presenting its own skewed version of options for parents. Planned Parenthood recieves government grants to help provide women’s health services, so the state would be justified in providing funding for services that present abortion alternatives, she added.

“The millions of dollars that go every year in government grants and funding to organizations like Planned Parenthood do not present the option really of carrying your child to term, either,” Herrod said.

If approved, the pilot program would also accomplish an end-run around efforts to refund Arizona 211, a hotline that refers people to services in their community.

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, sought to restore funding for the program with $1.5 million, but the bill was opposed by the Center for Arizona Policy over concerns that 211 could refer people to abortion clinics, the Arizona Mirror reported.

“Instead of funding the 2-1-1 system that has operated in Arizona since 1964 the Republican leadership is proposing budget bills, SB1547 and HB2759, to fund faux health centers,” Liggett said in a statement. “This bill is simply to appease the Center for Arizona Policy.”

Liggett told the Arizona Capitol Times Planned Parenthood provides pregnant women with all the available options, whereas crisis pregnancy centers that would be directed to be the hotline proposed by Herrod would leave women “steered toward one decision and one decisio alone.”

“I don’t know that the state should be picking winners and losers in this,” Liggett said.

Both bills were debated in House and Senate committees on Wednesday afternoon amid debate on an $11.8 billion spending plan. Senate President Karen Fann said the crisis pregnancy center language was considered as part of one of the main budget bills, but moved as a separate bill because legislators weren’t confident the budget would pass with it included.

SB1547 advanced in the Senate on a 6-4 vote, with Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, joining the committee’s three Democrats to oppose the bill.

The House is scheduled to vote on HB2579 Wednesday evening.

Fann, R-Prescott, said Arizona didn’t take up a restrictive abortion bill like those passed by other Republican-dominated states because there were too many other things to do this session.

“Arizona has been probably one of the top pro-life states, up there with Texas,” Fann said. “We felt that this year we had a lot of other issues that needed to be addressed.”

Julia Shumway contributed to this report.

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