By Rob Boston
South Dakota legislators recently passed a controversial law placing new restrictions on abortion. A three-day waiting period (the longest in the nation) has drawn the most attention, but another provision is problematic from a church-state perspective. It requires any woman seeking an abortion to first undergo “counseling” at a “crisis pregnancy center.”
“Crisis pregnancy center” may sound benign, but these places are essentially just centers for fundamentalist Christian/Roman Catholic anti-abortion activism. Far from getting “counseling,” women who visit such centers are pressured not to get abortions and usually subjected to religious proselytizing to boot.
Incredibly, these facilities get taxpayer funds in some states. Texas, for example, has been pouring tax money into them for six years. The centers are not supposed to promote religion, but as the Texas Independent reported recently, many do.
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The online publication noted that Austin LifeCare, a center in Travis County, “was found to have failed to label and separate its spiritual materials from its education materials. Plus, during a recent informational training session – attended by a Texas Independent reporter who identified herself beforehand as a journalist – ALC instructors inundated potential volunteers with overt religious references.”
The Independent reported that during one training session, a volunteer asked what to do if a client said she wanted an abortion. The trainer replied, “That is against what we are about here…. Prenatal care is very big for us…. If they do decide to make that choice…tell them to trust God, he’s got a bigger plan.”
Added the Independent, “While ‘God’ was mentioned to the point of excess in the ALC training session, Christian-specific references were included also. Leaders told volunteers to ‘handle people as Christ would,’ and show clients they could be ‘set free’ from the ‘shame of abortion’ through the ‘healing of Jesus Christ.’ When referencing a statistic about evangelicals who have had abortions, an ALC Bible study leader said, ‘There are lots of us Christians that go through it too.’”
Investigators also scored the clinic for distributing material containing inaccurate medical information – for example, claiming there may be a link between abortion and breast cancer. (Although frequently touted by anti-abortion groups, the link has been debunked by the National Cancer Institute.)
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Since 2005, Texas has funded a program called Alternatives to Abortion Services, which has cost taxpayers $11.7 million. Remarkably, much of the money has been diverted from a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, one of the nation’s largest programs aimed at helping people who fall below the poverty line. So, tax money that could be helping feed poor children or help their parents find work is instead funding religiously based lectures at bogus “clinics.”
South Dakota’s law states that staffers at these kinds of centers are not supposed to proselytize women unless they have consent. As journalist Michelle Goldberg has pointed out, “such consent may be easily extracted from someone who is already desperate and vulnerable.”
And, as the Texas experience indicates, it’s not likely that anyone from the state government is going to aggressively enforce this provision.
This is a paternalistic law designed to force women (many of whom are poor and already in a difficult position) to listen to sermonettes delivered by religious extremists who oppose abortion.
Think about that for a minute the next time someone tells you that the “culture wars” are over or that the Religious Right’s power is on the wane. Women in South Dakota must now meet with fundamentalist religious zealots before they can access a legal medical procedure. (In the spirit of fair play, perhaps South Dakota lawmakers should pass a law requiring men seeking vasectomies to meet first with a Catholic priest who patiently lectures them on every potential life they are denying.)
There has been some talk about challenging this provision of South Dakota’s law in court. I hope that happens. I also hope it is struck down as a violation of the fundamental right of conscience.