Sign up for the free newsletter that 30,000+ North Carolinans read to stay connected.

Unlicensed and unregulated crisis pregnancy centers offer “purposefully manipulative and deceptive practices” to dissuade patients from getting abortions, medical experts say.

The new North Carolina budget gives nearly $20 million to fake medical centers that can pretend to help a pregnant woman seeking an abortion, then lie, cancel appointments, and mislead her until she misses the window under the state’s new 12-week abortion ban.

While much of the attention on the budget has focused on the underfunding of public schools, it also includes provisions that further complicate a woman’s legal access to reproductive health care in North Carolina. 

The budget, which passed on mostly party lines last week, maintains previous restrictions against using state funds for abortions. But the budget’s biggest restrictions on reproductive rights come in the form of a huge increase in funding for “crisis pregnancy centers,” religious and unregulated clinics that medical professionals say mislead patients in an effort to dissuade them from getting legal abortions or even contraception.

“These facilities engage in purposefully manipulative and deceptive practices that spread misinformation on sexual health and abortion,” several doctors from the Duke University School of Medicine wrote in a 2022 nationwide study about the centers.

Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine doctor who joined a long list of experts criticizing the abortion ban this spring, said the money reflected the General Assembly’s misplaced priorities. 

“It’s jaw dropping that the state legislature would spend any money, let alone $20 million, on unregulated groups which masquerade as healthcare facilities while some of my primary care patients can’t afford basic treatment and medicines,” Pettigrew said in a text message. 

Religious Organizations

The bulk of the money in the new budget goes to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a nonprofit organization that supports most of the state’s 89 crisis pregnancy centers. 

It will get $6.25 million each year of the two-year budget. 

Of that money, $2.9 million each year will go directly to various centers as grants. While some of that money is restricted to “nonreligious, nonsectarian educational training,” the organization and the centers themselves are often anything but. 

“Most [centers] have strong ties to evangelical Christian organizations and often further their goal of religious proselytism by promoting anti-abortion and anti-contraception propaganda not supported by medical evidence,” the 2022 Duke study found.

“The majority of crisis pregnancy centers are part of an evangelical pro-life movement,” a separate study found.

Though Republican lawmakers increased the funding for Carolina Pregnancy Cares Fellowship, the General Assembly acknowledges on its website that the organization’s activities are not evidence-based. 

Free to Deceive

The centers are unregulated and often unlicensed, and the individuals offering services there do not need a medical degree. But they don’t have to tell that to their patients.

Women often don’t know the kind of facilities they are going to, Dr. Katherine Farris, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, told Cardinal & Pine in April. 

The centers lure low-income women with the promise of free services and prenatal counseling, Farris said, and can even promise to help patients get an abortion.

Then they delay, reschedule and even lie to women until it’s too late into the pregnancy for them to get an abortion, the studies and medical experts say. The state’s new 12-week abortion ban has exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, but none for a woman who wanted a legal abortion but missed the deadline because center employees lied to her. 

“She goes to that crisis pregnancy center and she gets lied to,” Farris said. “She gets told, ‘Oh, you’re only two weeks. We’re going to schedule your abortion in three weeks.’” And then when she’s about to go in for that abortion in three weeks, she gets called saying, ‘I’m sorry, the doctor can’t come in today. We’re going to reschedule you for a week from now.’”

“Where’s her exception?” Farris asked.

Republicans passed the 12-week abortion ban in May over the nearly unanimous objection of state medical experts. They warned that abortion restrictions are dangerous to maternal health and to rural communities. 

Contraception, Too

Crisis pregnancy centers don’t just mislead about abortion. They also push women away from contraception.

“Contraceptive services, if available, are restricted to abstinence‐only counseling for unmarried women and counseling about natural family planning methods for married women,” The Guttmacher Institute, a research-based reproductive rights group, found.  

In April, as word spread that Republicans would soon release a 12-week ban, North Carolina House Democrats introduced a separate bill to ensure access to contraceptives. It never got out of the rules committee. 

“Crisis pregnancy centers exist solely to coerce and deceive people out of accessing abortion and contraception, both of which are essential and normal healthcare,” the abortion rights group Pro-Choice Carolina said in a news release after the budget was released to the public.

“The recent abortion restrictions in our state were based on anti-abortion disinformation and stigma, and anti-abortion centers exist to amplify those tactics,” the group continued.

“No group should get public money to lie to people.”