The Vital Impact of Faith-Based Crisis Pregnancy Centers


This article was originally published on the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance’s website. As with articles published on Sacred Stories, it is meant to strengthen the capacity of all faith-based organizations to live out their faith-based missions. If you are already a Sacred Sector participant, log into the Participant Portal to access the toolbox resources. If your organization is interested in becoming a Sacred Sector participant, click here.

On Tuesday, March 20, the U. S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra. The case concerns whether crisis pregnancy centers — often faith-based organizations — can be forced by California’s law, the Reproductive FACT Act, to advertise abortion to their patients.

According to this 2015 law, a licensed clinic providing primarily family planning or pregnancy related medical services must provide information regarding prenatal and abortion services to all patients of free or low-cost family planning. CPCs that are unlicensed are not obligated to disseminate information on abortion access, but instead must inform patients that “the facility is not licensed as a medical facility by the State of California.”

Facilitating abortion is antithetical to the very existence of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). CPCs are organizations that help women to choose life for their unborn children. CPCs often also provide vulnerable women with material support, parenting education, spiritual guidance, referrals for social services and post-abortion counseling, among other services. Kristen Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian law firm representing the crisis pregnancy centers in this case, emphasized the shared mission of CPCs when she told The Atlantic: “These centers are focused on helping women imagine what the choice of life would be like.”

Uncharted Territory: The Extra-Legal Impact of the California Crisis Pregnancy Case

Oral arguments from Tuesday, March 20 demonstrated that the California law singled out CPCs and forced them to advertise services that go against the grain of their existence. Beyond that, this statute has resulted in missed opportunities for the state of California. California has missed the potential for innovative nonprofit/government partnerships that could have provided more women with the tools and resources to thrive — as parents, workers and members of their communities.

When nonprofit or faith-based organizations partner with government, they may be able to expand their programs’ impact while equipping government to more effectively meet the particular needs of a local community. Sacred Sector provides resources to equip faith-based organizations such as CPCs to address key issues, including government partnerships. One resource, the Government Partnerships Organizational Practices Toolbox, says:

If a FBO chooses to partner with the government and accept a grant or a contract, it should do so because the FBO sees that the government funding will build its capacity to fulfill its sacred mission, even as it fulfills the government’s purposes for the funding [...] The common good can be powerfully advanced when FBOs and government partner to overcome problems such as hunger, poverty and unemployment.

While there has been significant coverage of the oral arguments’ promising legal outcome for crisis pregnancy centers in California, there have been few questions raised about the non-legal impacts of this case. CPCs serve thousands of women in California every year. The state government could have recognized the opportunity to cultivate voluntary partnerships with willing CPCs to support pregnant women in California through referrals to non-abortive public benefits/services such as prenatal care, access to supplemental nutrition assistance, housing support and access to the state’s paid family leave and/or temporary disability program. Now, however, because of the state’s action, crisis pregnancy centers are less likely to explore innovative partnerships to promote the quality of life for mothers and babies.

For more information on the potential for faith-based and government partnerships, see Sacred Sector’s Government Partnerships Toolboxes.

Supporting Crisis Pregnancy Centers Help California Meet Goals

The lawyers representing crisis pregnancy centers argued that the FACT Act violates the First Amendment’s free speech clause. As Michael Farris argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, only licensed centers were required to provide such notice to patients about abortion access: “The state then provided exemptions for all other medical providers who serve pregnant women. This law targets a particular topic of discussion, employs compelled speech and is directed at disfavored speakers with disfavored viewpoints.”

Farris went on to note that the law does not apply to doctors in private practice and general practice clinics even if they serve pregnant women. The result of the legislation is that the state exclusively requires non-profit, pro-life pregnancy centers to post information about abortion.

By the time oral arguments ended, it was clear that the FACT Act faced an uncertain future, not only with the traditionally conservative justices, but also with Justices Kagan, Kennedy and possibly even Ginsberg. A large part of these oral arguments focused on how the FACT Act appeared to single out crisis pregnancy centers, known for their religious, pro-life missions, and force them to provide information to their patients about the very thing they were trying to prevent.

California’s Lost Opportunity to Support Vulnerable Women and Families

The FACT Act did get one thing right. It recognized the vital role crisis pregnancy centers play in serving some of the most vulnerable women in California. According to the state of California’s own lawyer in oral arguments, this statute was passed because the California legislature recognized the potential and capacity for these nonprofit community clinics to reach low income women better than the state itself had been able to do through publicity campaigns.

Unfortunately, rather than recognizing crisis pregnancy clinics as having a unique and vital role to play in reaching California’s most vulnerable women because of their noncommercial, nonprofit and nongovernmental status, the law tried to turn these clinics into mouthpieces for the government.

Pamela Palumbo, CEO of Pregnancy Clinic Ministry in Maryland, stated: “For the most part, the general public doesn’t realize the large impact of free services that crisis pregnancy centers offer that come at no cost to the government. For many pregnancy clinics, if we were forced to advertise for abortions, we would have hard decisions to make between advertising abortions and continuing to serve the unique needs of our communities.”

The real shame here is that, abortion policy aside, California state law does some admirable work in providing vulnerable women and families with resources to thrive. In this way, the state of California shares a value in common with CPCs: supporting women through their pregnancies and early parenthood.

For example, as NPR recently reported, many crisis pregnancy centers “rely on Medicaid as a tool for helping low-income pregnant women.” According to NPR’s report, low-income women are often unaware that, if they qualify for Medicaid, they can receive free prenatal and delivery care. According to one CPC director NPR interviewed: “[I’ve] seen several women decide to continue their pregnancies after learning that their medical care would be provided [through Medicaid].”

The NPR piece also captured a relatively common sentiment from crisis pregnancy center supporters — that government is unhelpful, wasteful and unnecessary in this space. Unfortunately, when governments like the California legislature take actions to compel speech from pro-life, religious pregnancy centers against their mission and conscience, then it is difficult to make the case to these CPCs that there is any possibility of mutual cooperation between them and government entities to support women and their babies.

Crisis pregnancy centers may have been, and may still be, a natural mission-fit for government partnerships that would provide vulnerable pregnant women access to more resources and potentially more economic agency. For instance, CPCs could play a role in the voluntary distribution of important legal information such as state employment laws on pregnancy and breastfeeding accommodations, paid time off and temporary disability. In turn, these partnerships could empower women to negotiate on-the-job accommodations that allow them to remain employed and make them more likely to consider keeping their babies.

One question still remains: Has the state California, through the actions of its legislature, lost the opportunity to partner with in CPCs in supporting healthy pregnancies, healthy babies and healthy families? I would say yes, except for the fact that CPCs are largely faith-based, and where there is faith, nothing is impossible. Like the staff of CPCs who provide hope to so many weary women, we too must not give up hope that the state of California recognizes the importance of protecting these unique organizations that serve the least among us.

If you are not a Sacred Sector participant and would like access to resources on public policy, organizational practices and public positioning for faith-based organizations, sign up to become a Sacred Sector participant here.

Chelsea Langston Bombino is Director of Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice.