Georgia House committee advances pregnancy center bill

A key state House committee has passed legislation that would make grants available to pregnancy resource centers that provide services as an alternative to abortion.

Senate Bill 308, which cleared the House Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday, would establish a grant program through the state Department of Public Health to promote pregnancy and parenting services as alternatives to abortion. Under the legislation, pregnancy resource centers could not use grant funds to refer clients to clinics that provide abortions or counsel women to get abortions unless their pregnancies are life-threatening.

The state Senate passed the bill last month on a party-line 38-16 vote. The bill's sponsor, Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said the legislation is a "positive alternative" to restricting access to abortions.

“What pregnancy resource centers do is offer the resources to make good decisions,” Unterman said. “Not only can they stay in business, but hopefully they can expand and decrease the number of abortions that we have in the state of Georgia.”

Unterman said she estimates there are 27,000 abortions each year in the state.

SB 308 would require centers to register as nonprofits and submit to annual audits by the Department of Public Health. The bill would prohibit centers from using grant funds to provide "counseling or written material" that includes political or faith-based content.

House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, expressed strong support for the legislation.

“We only talked about no abortions, and then there was no help for any prospective mother who decided not to have an abortion, but then there was no referral to medical care,” Cooper said. “We need to push for care of that pregnant woman, not just through the delivery process but on to the first year and on to life.”

Some lawmakers who voted against the bill expressed concerns that grant funds would not provide women access to information about abortion even though it is legal.

"Until abortion is illegal in this country, that's still an alternative," said state Rep. Nikki T. Randall, D-Macon. "This is only saying you can only get these funds as long as you don't counsel pro-abortion. That's not right because it's not illegal."

Other opponents of the bill questioned the quality of care pregnancy resource centers offer. Some expressed concerns that not all centers have medical professionals on-site for examinations.

Roula AbiSamra, the board chairwoman of Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, said pregnancy support centers make patients feel “more traumatized,” “misinformed” and “unsupported” than abortion clinics do. AbiSamra also accused pregnancy support centers of sometimes giving inaccurate information to their patients.

“We’ve provided information on where to find safe and qualified abortion providers to women who were told there is no such thing,” AbiSamra said. “Their experiences suggest that centers with an ideological agenda serve mainly to perpetuate stigma and shame in our communities.”

SB 308 is one of several bills involving abortion that are on the move at the state Capitol. Last month, the House passed two such bills.

House Bill 555, sponsored by state Rep. Joyce Chandler, R-Grayson, would require the Juvenile Court and Administrative Office of the Courts to compile and deliver statistics on girls 17 and younger who seek abortions without parental consent. House Bill 762, sponsored by state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, would prevent anyone, including doctors who perform abortions, from selling aborted fetal tissue.

SB 308 now goes to the House Rules Committee, which will decide whether it gets a vote on the House floor.