One year post-Roe, crisis pregnancy centers expand footprint in Mississippi

Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law a $10M tax credit for crisis pregnancy centers.

June 23, 2023, 4:10 AM

For the past year, Michelle Colon, a reproductive health advocate in Jackson, Mississippi, has not been able to bring herself to drive past the Pink House.

The state's lone abortion clinic operated by Jackson Women’s Health Organization had been forced to close its doors last July, just days after losing its legal battle before the Supreme Court and the state’s abortion ban took effect.

Now, the building is painted white, the site of an upscale consignment shop – as much a symbol of victory for anti-abortion groups as the Pink House was once a symbol of defiance.

Operating in the state instead are some 40 faith-based “crisis pregnancy centers” that state officials say are expanding operations thanks to $10 million in tax credits for businesses that donate to them.

"I still can't bring myself to go down that street," Colon, cofounder and executive director of SHERo Mississippi, a Black women's reproductive justice organization, told ABC News. "It was such a beautiful building .. and was the heart of that neighborhood."

PHOTO: Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., June 30, 2015. | Hunt consignment store is shown in Jackson, Miss., is seen here in April 2023 on Google Maps Street View.
Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., June 30, 2015. | Hunt consignment store is shown in Jackson, Miss., is seen here ion April 2023 on Google Maps Street View.
AP,FILE | Google Maps Street View

A year after the Supreme Court’s landmark case overturning a half century of abortion rights under Roe vs. Wade, abortion is banned entirely with exceptions for rape reported to law enforcement and to protect the life of the mother. There is no exception for incest.

Performing an abortion is a felony punishable by up to 10 years.

Researchers estimate there are roughly 3,150 fewer legal abortions in the state as a result, although it’s not entirely clear if those patients are opting to give birth or traveling out of state for abortions – a trip that could take a full day’s worth of driving to Illinois or Florida.

While the Pink House is no longer, within miles of its old location are nearly half-a-dozen crisis pregnancy centers, or pregnancy resource centers, non-medical facilities that offer free ultrasounds and pregnancy tests as well as support ranging from free diapers to clothing and parenting classes to women who choose to continue on with their pregnancy.

Shelby Wilcher, press secretary for Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, said the centers are critical to the state helping women and families.

"While Mississippi is proud to have led the nation in overturning Roe v. Wade, winning a court case was never our true objective. It was building a culture of life throughout our state and country," she said in a statement.

For abortion rights advocates like Colon, the centers stand as a symbol of what's gone wrong in the state post-Roe.

"You can give somebody today a little gift bag with, you know, one pack of Pampers and a pack of baby wipes ... that's enough to get you through, what, a couple of days," Colon said. "But we're talking about long-term assistance, that long-term help they claim that they do and that's just not true."

Boon in tax credits for Mississippi CPCs

Crisis pregnancy centers have existed in cities and towns across the country for decades but have grown in number in recent years. As of 2021, there were around 3,000 CPCs in the U.S., according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research and policy organization.

The centers are typically faith-based nonprofit organizations that rely mostly on private donations from churches, businesses and individuals.

In at least one dozen states, CPCs also receive state funding.

When abortion was banned in Mississippi last year, Reeves pledged to support women staying pregnant and having babies.

He’s since extended postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to one year and is setting up a task force to improve the state’s foster care and adoption system.

But the most immediate impact has been the millions of dollars in tax credits funneled to crisis pregnancy centers in the state.

The Center for Pregnancy Choices of Meridian, in Meridian, Mississippi, offers resources for pregnant women and families.
Center for Pregnancy Choices of Meridian

Last year, Reeves signed a law authorizing a $3.5 million tax credit for businesses and individuals that donate to crisis pregnancy centers in Mississippi, becoming one of the first states to do so. This April, Reeve expanded that tax credit to $10 million.

To qualify for the donations, the centers must meet specific requirements, including not spending more than 20% of the money on administration costs and not paying for providing abortions or financially supporting another organization that does.

Sara Smith, executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices in Meridian, said she envisions the center being able to greatly expand its services with money it receives from the tax credit.

"In a perfect world, we'd be able to buy a building and not have a mortgage," Smith told ABC News. "And be able to have a bigger spot for the medical services and then a bigger donation room and have a bigger diaper bank because we know that diapers are one of the most needed supplies for babies."

What is the money doing for women?

Supporters of crisis pregnancy centers say the additional funding from the tax credit is needed to support families and offset the impact of Mississippi's abortion ban.

But it’s not entirely clear what’s happening to those patients who would have sought an abortion previously and whether they are opting to travel out of state, ordering abortion medication online or opting to continue the pregnancy.

State data on births is out of date and Smith and other CPC leaders say they haven’t seen a dramatic increase in clients because of the ban.

Smith said the center has seen a slight increase in clients over the past year but attributed the rise to the center's increased marketing and community outreach efforts. She said women are still coming to the center unsure of whether they want to continue with their pregnancy.

"If they say, 'I don't know if I can do this,' we ask them if they have the time and if they're willing to discuss what they mean by that and we listen and observe what they're saying and where they're coming from," Smith said. "Then we take a holistic approach and we say, 'Who's in your corner with you? Where do your supports come from? Where do you think you need more support?' And we start thinking in our mind ... what can we do to fill these needs, to meet these needs?"

Terri Herring, president of Choose Life Mississippi, a nonprofit organization that provides grant money to CPCs through the sale of Choose Life specialty license plates, told ABC News the increase in women at CPCs over the past year has "not been overwhelming by any sense." She said what she has noticed is increased support for CPCs since the overturning of Roe.

"I think getting abortion outside the courts has provided an incentive for people to do more," Herring said, adding, "We can now look at this and say, we have achieved our goal, which was the overturn of Roe v Wade, and basically closing the last abortion clinic in Mississippi and ending abortion as we know it in Mississippi. So now that we have achieved that goal, how can we move forward in helping these women now that they choose life, or help them choose life, help them through their pregnancy?"

Shannon Bagley, executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices in Vicksburg, said the center has also not seen a dramatic increase in women seeking help with their pregnancies over the past year.

She said there has been an increase in demand for parenting classes, which the center began to offer online during the coronavirus pandemic. As is the case at most CPCs, when a person completes a class through the Center for Pregnancy Choices in Vicksburg, they earn so-called "baby bucks" which they can then redeem for diapers and donated supplies like clothes, breast pumps, cribs and mattresses.

The Center for Pregnancy Choices of Meridian, in Meridian, Mississippi, offers resources for pregnant women and families.
Center for Pregnancy Choices of Meridian

Bagley acknowledged that most of the support the center offers goes up until a child is age 4. Beyond that, she said she focuses on building community support for families and their kids, an effort she said she's even more focused on post-Roe.

She and other CPC leaders ABC News spoke with describe the centers as a "hub of knowledge" where people can be connected to the support they need.

"We have found that even at the four-year mark, I can now send her over to another facility that does similar things that we do but they do [ages] 4 and up," Bagley said. "So it's saying, "OK, we've got what you need, but also have somebody else that can help you too,' or, 'Oh look, I've got all these resources, how can we come together as a community to support you as a family?'"

The Center for Pregnancy Choices of Meridian, in Meridian, Mississippi, offers resources for pregnant women and families.
Center for Pregnancy Choices of Meridian

Carra Powell, a volunteer at The Care Center, in Southaven, Mississippi, said her center has also seen an increase in demand over the past year for the free parenting and childbirth classes it offers.

"I think a lot of people think a pregnancy resource center is strictly just serving women that are expecting, but there are many different families and women in different stages of parenting that are using the center," she said, describing the center as a "no-judgement zone." "We also provide aftercare for women, so clothing, cribs, continuing education classes, food services."

'Some of these women are delivering on the side of the road'

Colon and other reproductive health care advocates say the money from the $10 million tax credit signed into law by Reeves would go farther if it helped families care for their children, create jobs, provide long-term health care and afford housing instead.

"It's a tragedy that there's funding that has been created and it’s funneling to these entities when that money could be situated to help the real and existing families of Mississippi," Colon told ABC News.

Reproductive health care advocates point in particular to data showing Mississippi remains in one of the worse situations in the country when it comes to maternal and infant care.

Dr. Elizabeth Cherot, senior vice president and chief medical and health officer at the March of Dimes, told ABC News that Reeves' extension of Medicaid for postpartum women to one year is a potential "game changer." Still, she said, there remains serious gaps in care for women.

It’s estimated that more than half of counties in Mississippi didn’t have a single birthing center, hospital or obstetrics provider when the abortion ban took effect, according to March of Dimes' data. Many hospitals in the state are shutting down due to financial reasons and a lack of staff and some doctors have expressed concerns about legal liability.

The lack of access to obstetrics care means pregnant women will travel on average of nearly 16 miles to see a doctor, according to Cherot. In particularly rural counties in Mississippi, it’s not uncommon for women to travel an hour each way.

"Some of these women are delivering on the side of the road, putting their baby on their lap and driving if they don't have somebody to help them, or they're bringing the rest of their children in the car," Cherot said. "So this is a real problem that women are facing that gives me chills to think about this is what's happening in the United States."

According to the state's own maternal mortality report released in January, the pregnancy related mortality ratio has increased to 36.0 deaths per 100,000 live births. Nearly 88% of pregnancy related deaths were deemed preventable and the maternal mortality rate for Black, non-Hispanic women is four times higher than for white women.

The infant mortality rate in Mississippi is 8.72 deaths per 1,000 live births, much higher than the U.S. rate of 5.87, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Health.

Wilcher, with Gov. Reeves, told ABC News it will take time to see results.

"The governor’s office will continue to do everything in its power to deliver the support moms and babies deserve," Wilcher said in a statement.

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