Care Net is proud of its “pro-life” mission.

On its website, the network of “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) proclaims that “hundreds of lives” are being saved through its work – and they mean “saved” in more ways than one.

“The ultimate aim of Care Net, a network of 1,100 pregnancy centers in the United States and Canada, is to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ in word and deed,” asserts the site. “As a result, the hearts of women and men are being changed by Christ’s love to desire positive and healthy choices.”

It’s no surprise that an evangelical non-profit would credit God for its success. But mounting evidence suggests that Care Net’s expansion – and the growth of other CPCs – might be due to intervention from a more mundane source: U.S. taxpayers.

The legal mechanisms vary, but the results are the same: Dozens of states directly and indirectly channel public money to crisis pregnancy centers. NARAL Pro-Choice America puts the exact number at 34. Thanks to streams of public support, Christian non-profits like Care Net are expanding their networks while comprehensive medical providers like Planned Parenthood are forced to shrink.

As non-profits, CPCs have the right to adopt a sectarian, anti-abortion perspective to their work. But revelations that these centers receive public money raise serious constitutional concerns.

Crisis pregnancy centers aren’t medical offices. Even Care Net and Heartbeat International, another large outfit, acknowledge this. Their centers offer free pregnancy tests and sometimes ultrasounds. Lacking medical staff, they can’t provide medication. As their own advertising admits, “counseling” is the primary focus for center staff – and it’s usually evangelical Christian or Roman Catholic proselytism.

Recent undercover investigations by NARAL’s state affiliates provide interesting insight into the content and quality of the counseling and care provided by crisis pregnancy centers.

The results are troubling.

NARAL’s Virginia affiliate just completed a year-long undercover investigation into the state’s CPCs. In Virginia, centers receive funding from tax­payers through the sale of “Choose Life” license plates. The state divides the proceeds among approved centers. 

The approval process itself is suspect: The state relies on a list of qualified centers provided by Heartbeat International. Heartbeat boasts 1,800 affiliated crisis pregnancy centers and explicitly promotes conservative Chris­tian beliefs as a central feature of its work. According to the network’s website, Heartbeat affiliates are expected to “promote God’s Plan for our sexuality.”

In an earlier investigation conducted in 2010, NARAL researchers discovered that 76 percent of the sanctioned centers didn’t meet Heartbeat’s own standards of care. The same investigation also revealed that two of Heartbeat’s approved centers were actually non-existent.

Three years later, investigators have discovered that public money is still flowing to these shaky centers. The state’s failure to address documented fraud is disturbing, and when the ideological affiliations of these centers are considered, the state’s motivations for continuing the funding program should be scrutinized, critics say.

Americans United has no objection to privately funded pregnancy centers that oppose legal abortion. But, the group says, the government has no responsibility to create official channels for these donations or to find ways to prop up these centers.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Virginia does through the sale of its “Choose Life” license plates. The state has directly facilitated the taxpayer funding of religious non-profits, including fraudulent ones, to the exclusion of non-sectarian medical providers. That, critics say, is a clear prioritization of a sectarian agenda over quality medical care.

Other states have found more blatant ways to expand crisis pregnancy centers at the expense of comprehensive medical clinics.

In Ohio, the Department of Health and Human Services has been authorized to direct funds allocated to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a federal poverty prevention program, to CPCs. That’s in addition to the state’s own sales of “Choose Life” license plates.

Jaime Miracle, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio’s policy director, says that although the department has yet to actually channel the funds to these centers, the department’s director may choose to release the aid at any time. And there are no stipulations attached to the funds.

This means that the state of Ohio is authorized to fund crisis pregnancy centers whose services are totally unregulated. If there’s a church-state violation or other type of problem, state officials simply wouldn’t know, as they’ve made no effort to find out.

At the same time it was buttressing crisis centers, the state senate approved a budget that slashed support to Planned Parenthood’s Ohio clinics, a move that practically defunded Planned Parenthood’s operations in the state.

Another NARAL sting reveals the true gravity of the situation. The Ohio affiliate recently conducted its own investigation into the state’s crisis pregnancy centers. The sting, which resembles the one carried out in Virginia, sent undercover investigators to state-funded CPCs to determine the quality of the services provided to Ohio women.

As in Virginia, most centers are affiliated with religious networks like Care Net or Heartbeat International, and their individual websites feature heavily religious overtones and are liberally sprinkled with Bible verses. So it’s not much of a surprise that investigators discovered many state-funded centers engaged in blatant proselytization and even encouraged clients to attend religious services.

According to the final report, 28 percent of NARAL’s undercover investigators faced invasive questions about their personal religious beliefs. Thirty percent of the centers offered a “baby bucks” program:  clients earned credits to spend in the center’s baby supply shop by attending classes, counseling sessions – and church services.

When investigators inquired about birth control, they encountered religion again.

“Only one CPC told our investigator that they provided birth control services, but as the visit progressed, [the investigator] learned that they were only willing to discuss natural family planning,” reads the NARAL report. “When the investigators asked why they didn’t provide birth control, the answers included: the CPC not being a medical facility, that they only recommend abstinence, that they were a Christian facility, that birth control was not effective, and that birth control causes abortions.”

The counseling provided by the centers also reflected explicitly Christian content.

According to Miracle, investigators found that center staff were more likely to ask about a patient’s religious convictions than they were about the possibility of abuse in a patient’s romantic relationship.

“Funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant are intended to provide direct support to low-income women and children,” Miracle told Church & State. “By signing the budget, Gov. [John] Kasich redirected these funds to unregulated crisis pregnancy centers, which our research shows routinely lie to and coerce women facing unintended pregnancies.

“Sending taxpayer dollars to these unregulated centers shows that our state leaders care more about continuing their anti-choice agenda than actually helping the women and families of our state,” added Miracle.

For Ohio’s crisis pregnancy centers, state funding is evidence of God’s favor. On its website, one center proclaimed, “Yet, 86.9% of women considering an abortion who see their baby [at our location] choose life. In our humble opinion, that is God using our ministry with great effectiveness.”

In Texas, a strong anti-abortion mentality in the legislature has led to a tide of public funding for crisis pregnancy centers. The state directly funds these centers via its “Texas Alternatives to Abortion Program.”

According to the Austin Chronicle, the Texas legislature created the program in 2005 as a means to redirect funds from the state’s family-planning budget with the expressed intention of “promoting childbirth.”  In 2012, the Texas Observer reported that the program had received $26.3 million from the state since 2005. Those funds are administered by a private third party, the Texas Pregnancy Care Network.

Texas CPCs are, like their Ohio counterparts, largely unregulated. And it’s difficult to find out just how they’re spending the state’s money.

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told Church & State that her organization filed an open records request in an attempt to discover how the centers spent taxpayer money.

In response, they received an audit – with every word redacted.

“The centers claimed they had to protect ‘trade secrets,’” Busby said. “That made it impossible for us to tell what they were doing with their money.”

Despite the redaction, there’s enough evidence available to raise concerns about the constitutionality of the Texas program. In 2011, the American Independent reported that from 2006-2010, 99 percent of the funds available through the Alternatives to Abortion Program went to religiously affiliated crisis pregnancy centers.

More than half of these funds went to three religious non-profits. That includes the Fifth Ward Pregnancy Help Center, which boasts on its website that it had “presented the Gospel to 9,000 clients total since December 2004, distributed more than 11,000 Bibles and had 2,500 professions of faith made.”

The funded centers also typically apply religious tests for employment. The Pregnancy Help Center of Lufkin requires even its volunteers to attend church and to “…pray regularly for my part in the ministry and for the ministry as a whole.”

The state shows no sign of reversing this trend. Gov. Rick Perry recently spearheaded an effort to enroll CPCs in the state’s Women’s Health Program, which was originally intended to provide reproductive health care access to low-income women.

It’s an odd move, since pregnant women are actually ineligible for the program’s assistance. The state also banned Planned Parenthood clinics from receiving the same funds. 

Perry’s rationale became clearer in his remarks at a facility called Source for Women in Houston, where he announced that it and other crisis pregnancy centers would join the Women’s Health Program.

“As our forefathers correctly understood, life is nothing less than a gift from God,” he told onlookers.

Perry closed those remarks with a religious benediction: “May God bless you and, through you, may He continue to bless the great state of Texas.”

It’s evident that Perry considers crisis pregnancy centers to be religious ministries. It’s also evident that this is exactly why he and his far-right colleagues in state government have decided to give them millions of public dollars every year.

Under Perry, the centers are thriving. The Texas Observer quoted Cindy Ward of Pregnancy Resources Center of Abilene, Texas:  “Our ministry is growing and continues to be blessed by the Lord. We are seeing more unchurched, abortion-minded women than ever before. We continue to pray that the Lord will bless our clinic and reach out to our community to embrace life!”

In Perry’s Texas, women are running out of options. The Republican-dominated state government continues to roll back abortion access. Perry recently signed controversial Senate Bill 5 despite an initial filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) that captured headlines nationwide. The bill imposed stringent requirements on abortion clinics, and some analysts say it could eventually close 37 of them, leaving just five that meet the state’s new standards.

Nor is the Texas approach unique. Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have their own abortion alternatives programs in place.

Legislators are looking for ever-more creative ways to fund these centers. Some have been awarded capacity building grants via stimulus bills at the state and federal levels.

In Georgia, two members of the Public Service Commission recently tried to channel a $10,000 regulatory fine paid by a telecommunications firm to one of Care Net’s crisis pregnancy centers. 

The fine, paid by Peerless Network of Georgia LLC for reporting failures, would usually go into the state treasury, where it would benefit all Georgia taxpayers.  Instead, commission members H. Doug Everett and Tim Echols suggested giving the funds to a Care Net center. Everett’s wife volunteers at the center, and Echols has been paid to work with its national arm as a consultant, reported the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

Americans United, which opposes any attempt to funnel taxpayer dollars to sectarian ministries, is looking into these arrangements in several states.

Earlier this year, Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United, warned that the efforts to award tax aid to sectarian CPCs are highly problematic.

 “Using taxpayer money to provide explicitly Christian-based pregnancy counseling is a clear violation of the [church-state separation],” Lipper told Ms. magazine. “Soup kitchens might be able to separate their religious message from the food they serve. But the CPCs’ own documents and promotional materials illustrate that their advice to pregnant women is not and cannot be separated from their religious mission.”

Concluded Lipper, “And if this is what’s written down on paper, and with their overwhelming emphasis on hiring only Christians, I can only imagine what actually happens day to day.”