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Babies and Beyond’s timely rebrand won’t erase its 40-year legacy as a crisis pregnancy center

Image description: silhouette of a hand holding a phone doing a google search for “emergency pregnancy options madison.” Results include the Pregnancy Helpline Madison and Planned Parenthood. In the background are images about the delegitimacy of crisis pregnancy centers, including the Pregnancy Helpline logo with text painted over it “WARNING FAKE CLINIC.” End image description.
Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam.

You can’t shine shit, try as a PR machine might.

After June 24, abortions in Wisconsin stopped, but the bullshit didn’t. People grieved and protested the devastating loss of the insufficient but essential abortion protections provided by Roe vs. Wade after it was overturned by SCOTUS on a Friday. That same weekend, an organization called Pregnancy Helpline Inc. in Madison celebrated its 40th anniversary and a shiny new name change to “Babies and Beyond.”

The Catholic Herald newspaper of the Diocese of Madison called the timing of Pregnancy Helpline’s celebration and rebranding “providential.” 

You wouldn’t know it from the fluff pieces published by WKOW, Spectrum News 1, and Madison365, or from Pregnancy Helpline’s website, but the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health classified this nonprofit as a fake health clinic or crisis pregnancy center (CPC). 

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CPCs are anti-abortion organizations that provide misleading and inaccurate information about abortion and contraception to pregnant people. They usually offer free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, counseling, and other services. CPCs are often located near abortion clinics and use ambiguous language on their websites that obscure their anti-abortion stances.

CPCs and state policy work in concert to limit abortion access

In contrast to clinics that do provide abortion care and have been regulated out of existence by Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws and policies, CPCs largely operate without oversight. In fact, a SCOTUS ruling in 2018 gave CPCs broad First Amendment protections to withhold information from clients. The information CPCs collect from clients is not protected, either; because CPCs are usually not licensed medical clinics, personal and health data is not protected by privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

And unlike over-regulated abortion clinics, un-regulated CPCs receive a steady stream of public funding.

Thanks to the federal Hyde amendment and the Wisconsin GOP, abortion healthcare is not covered for people on BadgerCare and Medicaid, or for people receiving federally funded care through the Indian Health Service, federal and military employment, and federal prisons, with few exceptions (in Wisconsin: if the pregnancy endangers an individual’s life or physical health, or is the result of incest or assault and is reported to the police). 

But as the Associated Press reported in February, “Anti-abortion centers across the country are receiving tens of millions of tax dollars to talk women out of ending their pregnancies, a nearly fivefold increase from a decade ago that resulted from an often-overlooked effort by mostly Republican-led states.”

The Guardian reported that anti-abortion centers received at least $4 million in forgivable federal loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in 2020. 

Wisconsin law requires that state grants for pregnancy counseling services only go to organizations that do not provide abortion services or make abortion referrals. When former Gov. Scott Walker signed this requirement into law as part of the 2011-2013 Biennial State Budget, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin lost funding and closed five health centers in rural Wisconsin.

CPCs are part of right-wing strategies to eliminate abortion access

CPCs are also connected to religious and right-wing anti-abortion organizations that lobby to ban abortion and funnel funding to the pregnancy centers. 

In 2019, Republican state legislators Sen. Kathy Bernier and Rep. Romaine Quinn attempted (and failed) to pass a bill that would have allocated $500,000 in an annual, non-competitive grant to Choose Life Wisconsin to then distribute smaller grants to CPCs. 

Choose Life Wisconsin’s president is Julaine Appling, who also heads anti-abortion organizations Wisconsin Family Action and the Wisconsin Family Council. The three groups all list the same Madison address: an office on International Lane that was hit by two Molotov cocktails and graffiti—”If abortions aren’t safe then you aren’t either”—in early May. 

The Vice President of Choose Life Wisconsin is Dan Miller, who is also state director for the nonprofit Pro-Life Wisconsin. Matt Sande is Pro-Life Wisconsin’s legislative director.

Julaine Appling and Matt Sande, speaking for Wisconsin Family Action and Pro-Life Wisconsin respectively, were recently quoted in a Wisconsin Public Radio article calling for the elimination of any exceptions to save the life of the pregnant person from Wisconsin’s abortion ban. 

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“In a perfect world, we are not a group that thinks that exceptions are necessary or good,” Appling told WPR.

Choose Life Wisconsin collects $25 tax-deductible annual donations from people who purchase “Choose Life” license plates. The funds are then distributed to CPCs. In 2018, Choose Life Wisconsin gave the Pregnancy Helpline—now Babies and Beyond—$2,000. 

A small image shows three people standing in a doorway next to a poster of a "Choose Life" Wisconsin license plate holding a large check. Text to the right of the image reads: On Wednesday, May 23, 2018, the fifth check from the proceeds of the Choose Life Wisconsin license plate was handed to Stephanie Ehle, Executive Director (photo, left) of Pregnancy Helpline of Madison. Also shown are Juliane Appling, President of Choose Life Wisconsin Inc., Dan Miller, Vice President, Choose Life Wisconsin Inc."
Screenshot from the Wisconsin Family Council website.

The actively anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion organization Knights of Columbus awarded the Pregnancy Helpline a “2020 State Culture of Life” grant. Below, Pregnancy Helpline executive director Brenda Collins is shown holding a $3,400 check from the Wisconsin Knights of Columbus in a post on their website from November 2020: “Working together, the Wisconsin Knights of Columbus raised more than $105K to provide grants to numerous Pro-Life agencies throughout the state to help fulfill our shared mission—cultivating a culture of life.” 

A screenshot from the Wisconsin Knights of Columbus website shows a thick blue menu bar at the top of the webpage with the Knights of Columbus name and logo. Below the menu bar is a photo of three masked people holding a large check for $3,400 in a room with shelves containing diapers and baby clothes. The caption under the photo reads "Steve Rammer, Brenda Collins, Mark Lessner."
Screenshot from the Knights of Columbus Wisconsin website.

Aid doesn’t need to be wrapped in manipulation

In July, Isthmus editor Judith Davidoff reported on Babies and Beyond’s name change, pointing out that the organization is a CPC—a fact no one else reporting on the name change has bothered to mention—despite executive director Brenda Collins’ statement in the article that “her group does not do much counseling anymore but instead sends women to [another crisis pregnancy center].” (Davidoff explored CPCs’ track record of misinformation in an in-depth cover story for Isthmus in 2013.) Instead, Davidoff writes, “What Babies & Beyond does provide are donated diapers, baby clothes, baby toys, strollers, crib mattresses and food, including infant formula, to families in need.”

We desperately need diapers, formula, and other free, publicly-funded services for new parents. But we don’t need organizations like Pregnancy Helpline—under any name.

It feels good to publicize diaper giveaways and organizations stepping up to fill the gaps during the egregiously mishandled infant formula shortage (which is still ongoing). 

It feels good to hope that you’re connecting people to resources, and celebrating individuals and organizations providing those direct services. 

But the way that CPCs tie together resources with coercive and manipulative counseling is not a coincidence.

Quit “both-sides”-ing abortion

The words “Life-affirming” are included in a small, cursive font at the top of Pregnancy Helpline’s website. It’s a subtle signature of the double-speak that has become a hallmark of the right-wing movement to prevent people from accessing abortion care, often parroted in media coverage that repeats propaganda language—like using “pro-life” to describe a political movement to deny people life-supporting healthcare. Uncritical media coverage contributes to the veneer of respectability that enables CPCs to tap into unregulated spigots of public funding.

Can we stop treating CPCs like organizations that do good work, but happen to have unfortunate politics? “Both sides”-ing anti-abortion activism by pretending it’s a matter of difference in religious belief ignores the reality, the science, and the impact of selectively denying women, trans people, and nonbinary people autonomy over their bodies. 

We need to declare, unapologetically, that abortion is good. We don’t need abortion to be safe, legal, and rare. We need abortion to be free, safe, legal, supported, and an accessible option for anyone who chooses it. We need abortion to be treated like the healthcare it is. 

For someone who is pregnant and ends up at a CPC—either without knowing that it is an anti-abortion organization and not a medical clinic, or seeking free services—receiving inaccurate information about abortion or their gestational age can jeopardize their right to choose abortion. With a patchwork of state laws prohibiting abortion at certain numbers of weeks into pregnancy, by the time that person accesses real medical advice and care, it may be too late.

There are people who visit CPCs seeking resources for wanted pregnancies. A study published in 2020 found that most of the 21 pregnant women interviewed, selected because they had visited both a prenatal care clinic and a pregnancy resource center in either Baltimore or southern Louisiana, “chose these [pregnancy resource centers] because the resources were free, and they were largely satisfied with their experiences.”

However, the study also found that the “free” resources often came with strings attached, and that the CPCs were not equipped with wrap-around services to meet all, or even most, of the needs of the pregnant people, most of them low-income, who visited the CPC. 

In addition to free and legal abortion, we also need accessible, publicly-funded resources for people who choose pregnancy and parenthood. 

As some anti-abortion organizations begin, or continue, to provide much-needed supplies and services to new parents by funneling resources through CPCs, we can’t forget that the dire need for this support stems from their conservative legislative advocacy. Over decades, right-wing, anti-abortion politicians and organizations (aided by some Democrats) have gutted our collective social safety net and stymied efforts to expand funding and policies that would support families. We would not need stop-gap, band-aid services provided by nonprofits to help people meet basic needs—formula and diapers!—if we had a healthcare system, a justice system, an education system, an economic system, that actually valued people and their lives beyond the capitalist calculation of productivity. 

With their claws wrapped in a death grip around any potential progress—to provide pregnant people with life-saving and life-affirming healthcare through abortion access, to build and fund public systems that support people to survive and thrive with choice and autonomy—CPCs are preventing the kind of care they say they are trying to provide.

They’ve been getting away with it in practice. The least we can do is call it what it is.

Resources

If you or someone you know is seeking resources for abortion, pregnancy, or parenthood, here are some local options:

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