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Public Funding of Anti-Abortion Clinic Raises Questions

By Cindy Frazier
Special Correspondent

January 6 -- State tobacco tax dollars are helping to fund a Santa Monica anti-abortion clinic, raising concerns that public funds are being improperly funneled to "pro-life" groups seeking to roll back women's reproductive rights.

First 5 LA, the local agency that distributes nearly $200 million in tobacco tax funds, gave $25,000 last spring to the Westside Pregnancy Resource Center (WPRC), a Pico Boulevard clinic that counsels women against terminating their pregnancies and encourages them to give their unwanted babies up for adoption.

WPRC is one of a growing number of Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) affiliated with Last Harvest Ministries, Inc., a pro-life Christian ministry based in Texas. There are 25 CPCs in California.

Officials with First 5 California, which oversees the funding, said anti-abortion activities are considered a form of prenatal care and are therefore authorized under Proposition 10, the 1998 ballot measure that earmarks the state's 50-cent-a-pack cigarette tax for services for children ages "zero to five."

"They are giving out valuable parenting information," said Kevin Ryan, a spokesman for First 5 California. "Prop 10 was designed to give local associations flexibility" in how they spend tax dollars.

But pro choice advocates believe First 5 LA may have misused its mandate by granting funds to a Crisis Pregnancy Center.

"When the people of California passed Proposition 10, they didn't think funds would go to such a group," said Amy Everitt, state director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice California, a San Francisco group that lobbies for abortion rights in the state.

Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, who represents Santa Monica, has requested that the California Legislative Women's Caucus place the issue on their agenda when the group convenes in January.

State Senator Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica -- a leading Democrat and caucus member -- did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the clinic funding issue.

The funding questions have cropped up at a time when Democrats in California and nationwide are reportedly reconsidering their traditional support of abortion rights in the wake of the re-election of President George W. Bush, an abortion foe, according to recent news accounts.

WPRC operates a storefront facility at 828 Pico Boulevard, offering free pregnancy tests and counseling. The center's brochure contains a photo of a woman's stomach with the tag line, "Don't forget about me."

The front counter of the center displays an oversized baby bottle.

The ministry's website says it is crucial to "intervene" when a woman is in the early stages of deciding whether to proceed with a pregnancy or not.

"Every request is a possible life saved!" the website states. "Early intervention is the key!"

The organization states that its plan is "to have every crisis pregnancy center, shelter home, post abortion group and referral agent serve as a point of light to the woman in crisis."

The clinics typically offer free pregnancy tests and counsel women not to terminate their pregnancies. They also offer post-abortion counseling.

The center recently became a licensed medical clinic, and can now conduct on-site pregnancy tests and ultra-sound, according to Talitha Huff, the center's executive director.

The pregnancy center also operates a secondhand store for baby items and gives low-income women formula, diapers and wipes as long as the women attend meetings and parenting classes.

The clinic, which has six paid staff members -- two full-time -- and a number of volunteers, presents all choices for women with a pregnancy issue, including abortion, Huff said.

"We want her to make a good decision," Huff said. "We educate on all three choices, abortion, parenting and adoption. We believe in the empowerment of women.

"We don't have an agenda," she added. "We talk about the risks of all the choices. Abortion has lasting effects, emotional and psychological, and some physical."

But the WPRC web site -- support for which was a primary reason for the funding application -- claims that abortion creates lifelong emotional problems and is linked to breast cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Photos of fetuses in various stages of development and testimony from abortion recipients who regret their decisions are also on the site.

The website links directly to the Elliott Foundation, a Christian organization that dispenses information about sexual issues from a conservative religious point of view.

Pro-choice advocates argue that the website is being used for ant-abortion propaganda.

"It sounds like they (WPRC) are giving false information and couching it as medically sound," Everitt said. "I respect their views, but it is not right to mislead."

The public assistance of a CPC is troubling as well because the anti-abortion movement has created a "climate of fear" for women's clinics that do not espouse the "pro-life" doctrine, Everitt said.

In contrast to the WPRC's open, storefront facility, Santa Monica's Planned Parenthood clinic operates in a secluded, upper-story facility on the Third Street Promenade that is fortified with bulletproof glass and heavy security measures.

"Women have a right to accurate and honest sex education, but the CPCs take scared people and lie to them," Everitt said.

First 5 California is the state commission headed by actor/producer Rob Reiner which oversees the disposition of some $500 million a year generated by the 50-cent tax collected on every pack of cigarettes sold in the state.

All but 20 percent of those funds are given to counties on the basis of the number of annual births. First 5 California spends the remaining funds on its own programs.

First 5 LA oversees 29.1 percent of the funds, the largest share, because Los Angeles County has the largest number of births, Ryan said.

Most of First 5 LA's small grants of $25,000 or less were given to preschools.

Another faith-based group that received a $25,000 grant is Harvest Home in Venice, a church-affiliated facility for homeless pregnant women.

Larger grants have gone to organizations such as the Venice Family Clinic, which provide low or no-cost medical services to children and families.
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