During last week’s State of the State address, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced his plan to send $100 million taxpayer dollars to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). He announced a number of other funding measures including extending parental leave for state employees
This funding represents a 500x increase in state funds sent to these “fake clinics,” as pro-abortion advocates call them. Last year, the state spent $180,000 to buy ultrasound machines for the anti-abortion clinics, which are used for non-diagnostic ultrasounds. Lee even attended a dedication event in Jackson, TN, for one of the machines, which the clinics use to persuade women to keep their pregnancies.
“One of the most important pieces of my job is to protect the lives of individuals in Tennessee. But there’s no one in our state that’s more vulnerable than the unborn. And protecting the unborn is something that has long been in my heart as important for us to do as humans,” Lee said at the November 2021 event.
Lee also is on the advisory board of Hope Clinic for Women, an anti-abortion organization based in Nashville. If his $100M grant is approved in the state budget, Tennessee would top the nation’s spending on anti-abortion efforts just under Texas. Since 2010, Texas has sent nearly $205 million to such clinics with $100 million designated in the state’s two-year budget in 2021. Like Texas, Tennessee has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country.
Tennessee is one of 14 states that send funds to these clinics—a funding trend that’s increased by nearly five times in the last decade, the Associated Press reported. About $89 million taxpayer dollars were sent to anti-abortion clinics in the 2022 fiscal year, with nearly $500 million flowing to the clinics from state budgets since 2010, according to AP.
Grassroots sexual health organizations in the state, like Healthy and Free Tennessee, have mocked the proposed funding as “terrible use” of state funds.
“Funding ultrasounds at crisis pregnancy centers last year and now $100 million for fake clinics to talk people out of abortion. Seems like a terrible use of that money, but ok,” grassroots organization Healthy and Free Tennessee said in a tweet posted during Lee’s address.
The nonprofit clinics provide no medical services (aside from limited STI and pregnancy testing) or obstetric care, as most of the clinics have no doctors in-office, while many have a local, unpaid, obstetrician on staff. While they label themselves as “pregnancy centers,” the services provided anti-abortion clinics should not be confused with obstetric care. Most of these services are provided for free or at a reduced cost compared to paying out-of-pocket.
The funds, if approved, would be managed by the state’s “Office of Faith-Based Initiatives,” a nonprofit arm created by the legislature in 2019 to engage with community and faith-based groups to “find collaborative solutions to our toughest issues and leverage opportunities that contribute to the flourishing of Tennessee communities.”
But many major health organizations have criticized anti-abortion clinics, which often provide misleading information about pregnancy, birth control and sex education. The clinics also lack regulation and oversight required of obstetricians offices and sexual health clinics, potentially exposing patient information otherwise protected by HIPAA.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a brief on the clinics, which Lee argued in his speech will “endeavor to better serve children and families,” but the medical organization disagrees with the conservative governor.
In the brief, ACOG said the clinics often use misinformation, manipulation, disturbing images and intentional appointment delays to convince patients to keep their pregnancies. The public health risks of this misinformation can be especially harmful for underserved communities, which the clinics frequently target as “abortion-vulnerable” communities.
“CPC (crisis pregnancy center) targeting tactics often include the promise of free services and pregnancy and parenting support. With existing gaps in care already leading to disparities in health outcomes for marginalized populations, this CPC tactic can further exacerbate the disparities in the health and health outcomes of marginalized communities,” ACOG said in the brief.
Aside from state funding, some anti-abortion clinics receive federal funding from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare program and the Title V Sexual Risk Avoidance Education program to provide their services, which include creating and teaching abstinence-only sex education in local public schools.
Most states that have sex ed laws require curriculum to encourage abstinence as the best and main way young people should avoid unintended pregnancies and STIs.
Tennessee, and 33 other states, have “Choose Life” vehicle registration programs where motorists can get a “Choose Life” license plate—for which part of the fee goes to support anti-abortion clinics or adoption agencies. Guttmacher Institute has called these vehicle registration perks for anti-abortion efforts unconstitutional.
Grassroots sex educators are bridging the gap
Tia Savonne, a member of the Beyond Roe Collective, a Nashville-based LGBTQ+ and BIPOC led organization seeking to improve access to reproductive healthcare, and the mind behind the @slipp3rywhenwet sex education Instagram account, said now is the time to organize and take action.
“Instead of focusing on all of these other staunchly oppressive politicians, we need to really double down on focusing on ourselves,” Savonne said. “Bill Lee wants to give $100 million to crisis pregnancy centers—let’s make that money the biggest example of fraud, waste, and abuse you possibly can, by highlighting that these are fake clinics.”
To support her own community in middle Tennessee, Savonne operates a free sexual health pantry with the Beyond Roe Collective. The pantry just lost its former location, so she’s hosting it from her home. Some of the products she keeps on hand are Plan B, pregnancy tests, menstrual products, condoms, lube and other sexual health supplies that are more difficult to access in the post-Roe environment.
Anyone who needs any sexual health supplies in the region can send her a message on Instagram to set up a way to deliver the supplies, which are always free.