State-funded expansion of crisis pregnancy services may be a year away

By: - August 24, 2022 5:13 pm

An expansion of crisis pregnancy programs that offer alternatives to abortion may not be in place until next summer, state officials say.(Photo by Oscar Wong/Getty Images)

Iowa organizations encouraging alternatives to abortion may see increased demand for their services if abortion laws change. But the $500,000 in state funding the Legislature allocated to expand these services is not yet available and new abortion restrictions may come first.

The Legislature passed the “More Options for Maternal Support” (MOMS) program into law earlier this year, appropriating $500,000 toward funding nonprofit organizations that encourage alternatives to abortion. These organizations, often called pregnancy centers, provide services like pregnancy and adoption counseling for expecting and new parents.

Program funds have not been distributed yet. Alex Carfrae, a public information officer with the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, said the goal was to have services in place before the start of the next fiscal year. The next fiscal year starts July 1, 2023.

The department is currently working to hire a program manager to develop a request for proposals, which will seek a program administrator to build out a “statewide network of pregnancy support providers,” Carfrae said.

Pregnancy center needs may increase

But Iowa pregnancy center workers could use the support sooner, Jeanne Wonio, a board member at Women’s Choice Center, said. The Bettendorf center staff includes nurses and a psychiatrist, who work with people facing an unexpected pregnancy. They provide testing, ultrasounds, programs on child birth and nutrition as well as post-abortion and family counseling, Wonio said.

The center is donation-based, she said, relying on community and outside support both financially and to provide families with supplies like free diapers, infant formula and clothing. State funding could help them better meet the needs of their clients, Wonio said, and help them take on more clients in the future, if they see an increase in need following abortion law changes.

“We have a good support system in place now, but we already have a lot of clients,” she said.

The pregnancy center has not seen an increase in people seeking services since the Supreme Court decisions. But new abortion restrictions take effect, they likely would, Wonio said.

That could happen before Iowa has time to expand alternative services.

Abortion is still legal in Iowa, but the U.S. and state supreme courts decided this summer that the medical procedure is not protected under the federal or state constitution. These decisions opened the doors for legislation and court challenges seeking to restrict abortion in the state.

As it stands, abortions are banned in Iowa after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. Gov. Kim Reynolds is hoping to bring that timeframe down to six weeks. Earlier this month, the governor’s attorneys filed a court brief asking an Iowa judge to lift an injunction blocking the enforcement of the so-called fetal-heartbeat law. The decision could come within weeks.

The law, originally passed in 2018, would require doctors check for signs of a fetal heartbeat before an abortion. If detected, which is typically possible starting six weeks into a pregnancy, the doctor could not proceed with the abortion.

The Republican-controlled Legislature returns in January and could quickly approve more restrictions or an abortion ban.

Centers and critics take issue with state funding

Iowa is not the only state to fund abortion alternatives, but programs have been controversial in some states. In Arkansas, for example, no pregnancy resource centers applied to the $1 million set aside for the state grant program. The Arkansas centers, which are often religiously affiliated, claimed they feared accepting state money could restrict their religious missions.

On the other side, Democrats in Texas called to divert money from their state’s “Alternative to Abortion” program toward funding family planning services that have more regulation, and which do not discourage abortion as an option. Iowa’s program was modeled after the one in Texas, which also faced criticism after reports of “significant financial irregularities” on the part of one of the network’s subcontractors.

In Iowa, advocates with Planned Parenthood criticized the program during the 2022 legislative session for supporting “crisis pregnancy centers” that discourage or prevent people from accessing abortions. The appropriations law stipulates that program funds cannot be used to provide or refer women to pregnancy termination services, unless an abortion is medically necessary to prevent the mother’s death.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa spokesperson Sheena Dooley said in a statement the legislation “diverts taxpayer dollars that could be used to expand affordable, high-quality reproductive health care during a time when Iowa faces multiple health crises.”

But those at pregnancy centers, like Wonio, say the MOMS program will not impact abortion providers or their services. This legislation will not stop women from seeking abortions, she said, but will provide funding for services helping mothers and families facing unplanned pregnancies.

“There will be women who seek abortions and there’s women who won’t, and then there’s the ones who are unsure of what to do,” Wonio said. “We’re trying to be there for all of them.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.