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Kansas lawmakers might direct millions of dollars to anti-abortion counseling centers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Kansas, the state legislature is considering directing millions of dollars to anti-abortion counseling centers. This move comes after voters decided to protect abortion rights last year. And now, conservative lawmakers want to funnel money to what are known as crisis pregnancy centers to try to rein in abortions. Rose Conlon of member station KMUW and the Kansas News Service visited one of those facilities in southern Kansas.

ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: We are at Family Life Services in Arkansas City. The sign says adoption services, parenting classes, ultrasounds, guidance. And if you go inside, you would meet Marlana Mills.

MARLANA MILLS: The question that we ask prior to doing the pregnancy test is, if this is positive today, are you thinking of abortion?

CONLON: Mills is the executive director of this Christian crisis pregnancy center. They do anti-abortion counseling and give practical support, like free baby supplies. If workers suspect a woman is what they call abortion-minded, they'll offer an ultrasound hoping to sway her decision. Once, Mills cold-called a woman whose friend alerted the center she wanted to end her pregnancy.

MILLS: I said, I understand that you're pregnant and that you are considering abortion, and you have friends who love you that would like for you to talk to us. Would you like to make an appointment? It did not change her mind, but we were there for her.

CONLON: In Kansas, crisis pregnancy centers outnumber clinics that provide abortions more than 6 to 1. Critics call them fake clinics that try to trick women into continuing their pregnancies. Some even set up shop right next to facilities that provide abortions. And public health experts like Andrea Swartzendruber at the University of Georgia say some spread misinformation and offer controversial medical services.

ANDREA SWARTZENDRUBER: While they often advertise themselves as medical facilities, most of the people who staff crisis pregnancy centers are not clinically trained or licensed.

CONLON: None of the more than three dozen centers in Kansas are licensed medical providers or regulated by state health officials. And that's typical across the country. Still, Kansas is one of at least 17 states that gives crisis pregnancy centers taxpayer money. Now, in a post-Roe Kansas, anti-abortion lawmakers have turned their focus to dramatically expanding that funding.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You've heard the motion. All those in favor signify by saying, aye. The ayes appear to have it. Ayes do have it. Motion carries.

CONLON: Last month, state senators passed a bill that would steer up to $10 million annually to the centers. It's now in the House. Center operators say the money would help women like Korbe Bohac, who brought her baby to the legislature to testify about how one Kansas center counseled her to continue an unplanned pregnancy.

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KORBE BOHAC: I was very unsure walking in those doors as to whether I was going to carry Winston here to full term. But thanks to the resources and the programs offered by the center, I've gained the confidence and the structure needed to be the best mother I can be.

CONLON: Not everyone has a good experience. Kelsie Morris found herself at a different center after a positive home pregnancy test. She was newly married and between jobs, and money was tight. But she didn't want an abortion. She just needed a medical professional to confirm the pregnancy. When she got to the clinic in Wichita, she says workers cornered her while her husband was in another room.

KELSIE MORRIS: The entire experience was very surreal and condescending. They didn't want to believe that I wanted this baby because their entire pitch was you don't need an abortion.

CONLON: She went back to the clinic a few weeks later for an ultrasound. And not long after, she says, she received a text message from someone who had gotten her phone number, saying they were praying for her to make the right decision.

MORRIS: So you use my personal file to try and sway my medical choices.

CONLON: Crisis pregnancy centers don't have to keep anyone's information confidential. Many claim to follow federal health privacy guidelines, but it's not enforced. Critics like Carrie Baker at Smith College say giving the centers, known as CPCs, more money could create legal issues, especially for the growing numbers of out-of-state residents traveling to Kansas for abortions.

CARRIE BAKER: The concern is that, like, if somebody goes to a CPC and gets an ultrasound and they say you're five weeks pregnant, and then later that person turns up not pregnant anymore, that they could use that information to criminally prosecute them.

CONLON: Kansas has long been at the forefront of the clash over abortion rights, and these crisis pregnancy centers are just the latest effort to curtail the procedure in a state where residents voted to protect abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe.

For NPR News, I'm Rose Conlon in Arkansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON GIDDENS' "MOUNTAIN BANJO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rose Conlon