Proponents of a new state law meant to benefit privately run anti-abortion centers — often called crisis pregnancy centers — say it will help to address Louisiana’s dire maternal health crisis, particularly in rural areas where access to care is limited or nonexistent. 

There are at least 32 crisis pregnancy centers in Louisiana, according to researchers with the University of Georgia tracking such organizations across the country. But almost none of the centers are currently located in the parts of the state with the greatest need for maternal care. 

A Verite News analysis finds these centers, which also receive public welfare dollars and offer limited to no health services, exist almost exclusively in parishes categorized by the March of Dimes as having full access to care. Only one is located in a parish classified as a maternity care desert, where there are no hospitals or birthing centers that provide obstetric care.

The other 31 are located in parishes where two or more hospitals or birth centers offer obstetric care. Jefferson and East Baton Rouge parishes each had four crisis pregnancy centers, followed by Orleans, Lafayette, Caddo and Calcasieu at two each. East Baton Rouge Parish and Jefferson Parish are also the two most populous parishes in the state, followed by Orleans. 

Experts interviewed by Verite said that these centers, which have historically aimed to deter women from getting abortions, are often located near or even next door to abortion clinics. And abortion clinics tend to be found in population centers, where more health care providers are located. Louisiana’s last three abortion clinics, which closed last year following the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing abortion and activating the state’s so-called “trigger law,” were located in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport, all of which have multiple crisis pregnancy centers. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, conservatives in states with some of the strictest abortion bans are focusing on rebranding crisis pregnancy centers as tools to address the national maternal health crisis. The new law gives tax credits to people and entities that donate to “maternal wellness centers.” It reflects a wider effort by lawmakers to increase funding for crisis pregnancy centers in states with some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the country — states that also have some of the worst maternal health outcomes. 

Scholars of and advocates for reproductive health said the cluster of centers in urban areas shows a weakness in the argument of the centers’ supporters. Two public health researchers at Tulane who have taken a close look at such centers in Louisiana, Lily King and Victoria Utria, confirmed Verite’s analysis. They said the centers have the infrastructure to provide useful care, but that’s not happening in practice. “It’s just a squandered opportunity to actually provide people that help and support,” Utria said.

In her push to pass the crisis pregnancy center tax credit bill that she sponsored, Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, described the centers as places where rural women who don’t have access to prenatal care can get the support they need. Louisiana’s maternal health crisis — the state is one of the most dangerous places in the country to become pregnant, especially for Black people — and the end of Roe v. Wade further heightened the need for this legislation, Mizell said on the Senate floor. 

“Many of you have areas like mine, where it’s rural,” said Mizell in an April legislative committee meeting. “Women who want prenatal care and want to do the right thing don’t have access to it.” Mizell’s district includes Tangipahoa, Washington and St. Tammany parishes, all of which are classified by the March of Dimes as parishes with full access to care. Mizell did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

Verite News attempted to contact 11 organizations that run 13 pregnancy centers across Louisiana. None responded by publication time.

The new law could help the anti-abortion movement achieve an aim of expanding these centers across the state and into maternal care deserts, according to Sarah Zagorski, communications director at Louisiana Right to Life, which supports the new law. 

“The senators need money and need support to make more of them and that’s exactly what the goal of this [law] is,” Zagorski said. 

Cenla Pregnancy Center in Marksville, the seat of Avoyelles Parish, is the only center in the analysis that is operating in a maternity care desert. Life Choices of North Central Louisiana, a pregnancy center in Ruston, is located in Lincoln Parish, where there is access to maternity care, but lies near the border of Jackson Parish, a care desert. 

Crisis pregnancy centers typically offer free pregnancy tests, limited ultrasounds and baby items such as diapers and blankets. According to a recent review by WWNO/WRKF, none provide accurate information about contraception, hardly any have trained nurses on staff and nearly all are religiously affiliated. Some also recommend “abortion reversals,” a treatment described as “unproven and unethical” by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists. The national OB-GYN group has outlined a series of “misleading practices” used by crisis pregnancy centers, which have located themselves beside and falsely represented themselves as reproductive health clinics.

The regional disparity of these centers shows a flaw in the argument pushed by advocates for these centers, said Michelle Erenberg of the reproductive rights organization Lift Louisiana: “If they’re not even located in areas with the greatest need, then how is that funding actually being put to use in providing services that pregnant people need?” 

A lack of regulation makes tracking these centers difficult; sources have listed anywhere between 30 to 40 such centers in the state in the past year. (Researchers who produced the map used in this analysis categorized a business as a crisis pregnancy center only if the center confirmed the address.) The new tax credit law will require some additional transparency measures — including the creation of a maternal wellness center registry and reports from centers indicating that they offer clients lists of doctors and Medicaid sign-up information.

When the tax credit law takes effect in 2025, individuals and corporations will be able to claim an income tax credit up to $5,000; the credit is capped at $5 million each year. The centers already receive public funding, collecting more than $11 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars from 2011 to 2018 through the state’s Alternatives to Abortion Initiative, according to a 2022 report by Lift Louisiana. 

Despite the government funding, the impact of these centers is difficult to quantify because they’re still not required to report the number of people they serve, and the new law makes it clear that the state health department doesn’t actually regulate them. (The centers don’t want such oversight, lawmakers sponsoring the bill said earlier this year.) And to qualify for the tax credit, they must be affiliated with at least one of the three most prominent national anti-abortion organizations.

Public health scholars and Mizell agree that maternal care access is an urgent problem for the state. For instance, a 2020 study led by Tulane epidemiologist Maeve Wallace documented the adverse consequences of living in a maternal care desert in Louisiana, finding that the risk of pregnancy-related death was higher for people living in a parish without access to maternity care. 

And crisis pregnancy centers may be working against Mizell’s argument that they provide care. A 2022 study in the International Journal of Women’s Health found that even people who visit crisis pregnancy centers for desired pregnancies may experience delayed entry of prenatal care or delayed diagnoses of pregnancy complications or other conditions.

Even as conservative legislators maintain the state’s near-total abortion ban in post-Roe Louisiana, new efforts to address the maternal health crisis — from legislation to regional pilot programs and medical start-ups — are cropping up. 

For example, the Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast facility in New Orleans, which has offered reproductive health services since 2016 but has never provided abortions, is as of Thursday (Sept. 7) offering more pregnancy-related services, citing in a news release “the worsening public health crisis caused by devastating abortion bans and high maternal mortality rates” in the region. The new services include ultrasounds to date pregnancies or confirm the success of out-of-state abortions, evaluations for early pregnancy complications and miscarriage management, and referrals to other health care providers.

Next door to the Planned Parenthood facility is the Woman’s New Life Clinic, which opened with the intent to steer women away from getting abortions shortly after Planned Parenthood established its New Orleans facility. Woman’s New Life Clinic did not respond to multiple requests for comment or answer questions about the services it provides (its website describes hormonal birth control as “harmful to women,” and it’s unclear what gynecological services the center offers). 

On a recent morning in early September, a reporter stopped by the two buildings and parked in the only empty spot at the Planned Parenthood lot. At the Woman’s New Life Clinic, a representative declined to answer questions, saying the center was very busy. There were no clients in the waiting room.

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Josie Abugov is an undergraduate fellow at Harvard Magazine and the former editor-at-large of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Abugov has previously interned for the CNN Documentary Unit...