COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A week after Ohioans voted to constitutionally protect the right to abortion, lawmakers are mulling over legislation to benefit anti-abortion counseling centers across the state.

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday held its first hearing for Senate Bill 159, a bill to provide nonrefundable tax credits for donations made to state-certified anti-abortion counseling centers. The bill’s sponsor and supporters tout it as a way to promote maternal and infant health at a lower cost to the state, while its critics and abortion rights advocates call it another attempt to funnel people away from abortion services.

Also known as “crisis pregnancy centers” and “pregnancy resource centers,” anti-abortion counseling centers are nonprofits typically operated by faith-based groups that provide limited services – including over-the-counter pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and some infant supplies – to pregnant people, often for free. Estimates on the number of centers vary, but there are at least 175 such centers across the state, including nine in Columbus.

The centers are not health care providers and neither their facilities nor personnel are regulated by the state, but they have received millions in state funds over the past decade.

Ohio has funded anti-abortion counseling centers since 2013, with the launch of the Parenting and Pregnancy Program within the Department of Job and Family Services. Last year, $6 million was allotted to the program in the state budget; over the next two years, the centers will get $14 million. The state also distributes funds to anti-abortion counseling centers through federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grants and the “Choose Life” license plate fund.

SB159 would incentivize individuals and businesses to donate to anti-abortion counseling centers by offering credits for either a person’s income tax or a company’s commercial activity tax. Annual donations up to $10 million – or $5 million to a specific center – will be matched as a credit from the state for up to 50% of the taxpayer’s liability. Any donated amount over the 50% liability mark can be rolled over for five years.

The Ohio Policy Evaluation Network estimates that one in seven women in Ohio have visited an anti-abortion counseling center. Black women and low-income women are disproportionately more likely to have visited a center – and many centers focus on reaching low-income populations.

The Department of Taxation would determine which facilities are eligible for credited donations, but they must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with more than 50% of clientele being from Ohio
  • Principle purpose is to “provide free or low-cost assistance” to support “pregnant women in carrying their pregnancies to term”
  • Cannot provide or promote “nontherapeutic” abortions or contract with any person who does

Under Ohio law, “nontherapeutic” abortions are those that are not necessary to save the life of the pregnant person or do not terminate a pregnancy that was the result of rape or incest that was reported to law enforcement.

Sen. Sandra O’Brien (R-Ashtabula), the bill’s sponsor, said in testimony that it is “more important than ever” to ensure vulnerable women and families have access to supportive care.

“By creating a tax credit for donations to (pregnancy resource centers), the state is investing in a network providing high-quality health care to pregnant women,” O’Brien said.

But these are not health centers, and they peddle falsehoods that only delay people’s access to reproductive health services, said Jaime Miracle, deputy director of Pro-Choice Ohio.

Pro-Choice Ohio’s statewide investigation into anti-abortion centers in 2013 found that centers routinely mislead pregnant people into believing they are health care providers, only to discourage them from seeking abortions through biased messaging and misinformation.

A follow-up investigation into anti-abortion centers in Columbus released in September found that centers continue to provide misleading information about abortions while increasingly encouraging people to undergo ultrasounds at unregulated centers. Miracle said it was common for center staff to downplay the risks of pregnancy while overstating the risks of abortion, while several centers explicitly advertised that they did not provide abortion referrals.

Through in-person sessions and on their websites, many centers also promote the false belief that medication abortions can be reversed, and guide clients toward organizations that claim to provide such a service.

While some centers provide limited ultrasounds – that are often not performed by licensed medical professionals – Miracle said in the experience of Pro-Choice Ohio investigators, many do not provide much more than pregnancy tests and counseling that encourages people to continue their pregnancies.

Miracle said those services are “woefully inadequate” compared to what pregnant people require, regardless of whether they want to carry their pregnancy to term.

“These centers not only don’t provide that care, but in some cases delay the actual care pregnant people need,” Miracle said.

O’Brien said the Legislative Service Commission estimates the tax credits will cost the state between $3 million and $10 million each year. It’s a small price to pay to promote maternal and familial wellness, she said.

“Their work and care day in and day out shows their commitment to serving women and families around them and saving the lives of the unborn,” O’Brien said. “A tax credit is the least we can do to support the (centers) in Ohio.”

Miracle said the money the credits will cost the state should instead go toward actual health care facilities providing comprehensive reproductive services, including abortion. One organization she pointed to is JustChoice, which calls itself a “pro-choice adoption agency” and provides pregnancy resources, counseling and abortion referrals.

The first hearing on SB159, which was introduced in September, comes after Republican lawmakers have called for various state responses to the passage of Issue 1, which protects the right to abortion and other reproductive health care in the state constitution. Over two dozen Republican lawmakers vowed to do everything in their power to prevent the repeal of more than three dozen abortion restrictions, with four lawmakers announcing their intent to introduce legislation stripping the judiciary of its authority to hear cases related to Issue 1’s constitutional provisions.

Miracle said the timing of SB159’s first hearing is no coincidence and is just one more act of retaliation against support for the abortion amendment. The people of Ohio voted for abortion, she said, and state lawmakers should take heed instead of  “undermining the will of the people of our state.”

“This continuation of placating their political base over the needs of Ohioans is just not gonna fly with Ohioans anymore,” Miracle said.