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Pro-life charity Pregnancy Counselling Services received $300k taxpayer money

By Susan Strongman of rnz.co.nz

Internal Affairs has approved hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of community grants to pro-life pregnancy counselling organisations over the past 15 years.

In fact, in 1983 when PCS was established as a charitable trust, its founding documents describe its purpose as being to counsel and assist women "bearing children to continue with their pregnancies and thereby to reduce the practice of killing children by induced abortion and to protect women from the detrimental consequences [of abortion]".

Between 2010 and 2012, when Rebecca volunteered for PCS, she says as well as giving out foetal models, counsellors gifted pro-life "precious feet" lapel pins to clients considering abortion. (A PCS spokesperson says the organisation no longer shows foetal models without consent, and counsellors are not to wear precious feet pins when representing PCS.)

At monthly meetings, there were prayers said to protect the unborn, but publicly, the group distanced itself from the church. "They don't present themselves as being religiously affiliated, they don't present themselves as being anti-choice. In the advertising it's all about, 'We're here to talk to you and support you.' But it really is about trying to find ways to save babies... It's very much about that."

In 2015, after complaints about PCS ads run in University of Otago student magazine Critic, and on Radio One, a Critic writer "tested the service" and noted the following: "Discussing termination resulted in a long list of cons to consider, such as, 'grief for the baby you might have had', 'hormone build-up with no baby at the end' and the… belief that 'life begins with conception'. When asked what the physical... concerns would be, the consultant said there was, 'sometimes unexpected bleeding. The doctor needs to go and tidy things up a bit'."

In 2017, PCS used a grant from Google to spend approximately $7000 on AdWords - meaning that when people searched terms like 'abortion', 'abortion pill', 'unwanted pregnancy', 'unplanned pregnancy', 'accidental pregnancy', 'teen pregnancy', and 'where to get an abortion nz', ads for PCS came up as a top result.

Today, 36 years since it was registered as a charity, PCS has 12 branches across New Zealand, (from Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Hawkes Bay, Gisborne, Whanganui and Wellington, to Timaru and Dunedin) and three phone hubs open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In July, PCS ran two ads on Facebook. Both showed photos of pregnant women, with the organisation's logo and contact details, alongside the words, "Call us, we care!"

The PCS website makes no mention of the organisation's founding, pro-life purpose. On the homepage, the slogan, "We care. Call us," sits over an image of a worried looking young woman staring into the distance. Behind her, in soft focus, is a man with folded arms. A cartoon style thought bubble protruding from her mouth reads, "Should I have an abortion? Will he stay with me?"

The website says services offered include support for pregnant women, help after termination and help for people considering adoption or abortion. Under the title 'considering abortion' there is a list of "possible physical and emotional consequences of abortion", including "anger, self-harm, abuse of drugs and alcohol, anxiety" and "suicidal thoughts or attempts". The information is attributed to a 2008 study by Canterbury University.

Associate Professor Joseph Boden, one of the study's lead authors, says his work is misrepresented on the website ("Some of the substance and all of the tone is wrong.") He and his colleagues found no evidence of links between abortion and suicidal thoughts or attempts, anger or self-harm. Though the study did find a link between abortion and depression, anxiety and some alcohol and drug use, Boden says the increase was small - "on par with exposure to anything stressful"

Sandy Simpson has volunteered with PCS as a counsellor for more than 20 years, and chairs the organisation's board of trustees. She says although PCS was founded as a pro-life charity and many of its counsellors are pro-life, this does not affect their professionalism with clients. She says they avoid taking on volunteers who are "extremely pro-life or pro-abortion".

PCS counsellors are not required to hold qualifications or be professionally registered. They are trained by other PCS volunteers, discuss cases at monthly meetings, and can attend annual conferences with other PCS counsellors and guest speakers. "The way we train our people is that, even if that kind of belief is their own personal stance, you have to be prepared to talk to people with a totally different worldview, and respect that," Simpson says.

Because of this, she doesn't think it necessary to tell clients that PCS counsellors are pro-life (and predominantly Christian). "Every counsellor will always have their own personal opinions and viewpoints - and often quite a strong one on something like abortion. But it shouldn't be affecting their counselling, and it shouldn't be imposed on the client." (RNZ asked PCS to facilitate an interview with a client who had used the service, but the organisation was unable to do so.)

Simpson says while PCS tries to stay out of the politics around abortion ("We're not activists"), some individuals do go to demonstrations, like those endorsed by lobby group Voice For Life.

But at a conference in February, billed as a "training programme for pro-life activists" with the aim to "educate the next generation of the pro-life movement who will lead the movement in their universities and communities", Simpson spoke of the "awkwardness", "embarrassment" and "shame" associated with having an abortion: "Somebody asked a question earlier… 'Is it just something imposed by society, that sense of guilt?'… But I think it is much deeper. And I think there is something in us that senses human life does have value and worth. And I counsel people after abortions - people from many different backgrounds, many different religions - and they all have an awkwardness and discomfort about what they've done."

In a submission to the Law Commission on behalf of PCS, Simpson argued against the decriminalisation of abortion, which is currently legislated in the Crimes Act and treated as a justice rather than health issue. "If the current grounds for a termination are removed, any woman could request this procedure, on a whim, and couldn't be refused," she wrote. "On a bad day, after an argument with her partner, would she be able to have an abortion simply to spite him by removing the child he anticipated excitedly? Could she apply for a termination just because she didn't like the morning sickness that often accompanies the first trimester? Or because the scan reveals the baby is not the gender she wants? Later, she may deeply regret this irreversible decision."

Her submission continued: "The current laws frustrate some women and they feel they have to feign "mental health issues" to qualify. However, these laws do mean that medical staff must take each application seriously, finding grounds that fit the criteria and turning away women who are undecided, being pressured by someone else or choosing due to gender preference."

In 2015, PCS gave evidence before Parliament's Justice and Electoral Committee supporting a petition calling for parental notification of abortion for under 16-year-olds.

Internal Affairs has also given Cogs grants to Crisis Pregnancy Support. The organisation was founded in Nelson by Catholic, pro-life husband and wife Joseph (a general practitioner) and Cushla Hassan (a nurse) and has a branch in Masterton chaired by pro-life, Christian paediatrician Andreas Leinfellner. Both branches have applied for Cogs grants to help women make "an informed decision" regarding their pregnancies.

Both branches state their purpose as being to give people facing unplanned pregnancies "access to reliable, sustained care and support so that choosing to continue her pregnancy is a viable option."

An application for a Cogs grant from the Nelson branch reads, "We hope to alleviate impulse decisions by supporting women to process issues surrounding the crisis pregnancy so that the normal level of cognitive functioning returns. This enables her to make a fully formed [sic] decision about her pregnancy". Crisis Pregnancy Support's services are described as being "non-judgemental", and clients are described as being "vulnerable" and "disadvantaged women such as those who may have mental health problems, no financial support, are in abusive relationships, in financial trouble and may have substance abuse issues".

The application says the charity offers "a free, totally confidential, non-judgemental service, and time to explore how it would be for a woman to continue her pregnancy if she had the right kind of support". It says the "ultimate outcome" is "a healthy woman and healthy baby, supported in the context of her whanau and community".

Wairarapa abortion provider Dr Simon Snook says he's heard client feedback about biased counselling from Crisis Pregnancy Support, via professional social workers employed through the district health board. "My concern, from what I've heard, is that women who are attending them [CPS] for support, maybe feel that they are getting non-judgmental advice over what to do with an unplanned pregnancy, but that the counselling that they're obtaining is leading towards [or] encouraging them to continue with the pregnancy, rather than giving abortion as a viable option as well."

Crisis Pregnancy Support Nelson received $2000 from Cogs for the last financial year. It did not specify what the money would be used for. In 2017 and 2018 it also received $21,500 from the Anglican Care Trust. The Wairarapa branch received $1000 from Cogs this year "for promotion and brand awareness, printing, marketing and advertising, and administration and running costs" and a $15,000 lottery grant in 2018.

The Hassans and Dr Leinfellner declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a submission to the Law Commission's 'alternative approaches to abortion law' project, Cushla Hassan described abortion as destroying "innocent human life", while Joseph Hassan wrote, "We find the vast majority of women decide to continue their pregnancy with appropriate support, even if their first response was to seek a Termination of Pregnancy [sic]". Last year, speaking to student group Pro-Life Auckland, he said nine of the ten women who came to their practice in its first year seeking an abortion decided to "keep their babies".

Erin*, a former patient of Dr Hassan's at his Nelson clinic, St Luke's Medical Centre, where the crisis pregnancy centre is based, recalls being refused a prescription for the oral contraceptive pill. The mother of two had signed up to the nearest practice when she moved to Nelson with her family, and was unaware that Dr Hassan objected to both contraception and abortion.

She realised after he refused her the pill that he had strong beliefs. When she fell pregnant a third time and was hospitalised with severe morning sickness, she made the decision to terminate. "We were going through a very emotional time, knowing that we couldn't keep this baby," Erin says. "You feel the guilt and all that sort of thing as well."

Her fear of the medical centre staff's reaction to her decision meant she changed to another GP as soon as she was discharged from hospital. "I would have felt blamed I think... I wouldn't have felt comfortable with [Dr Hassan] knowing that I'd had a termination."

In 2005, NZ Herald reported that Hassan wrote to 50 patients telling them he would no longer prescribe contraceptives or refer women for sterilisation. The letter told patients their fertility was a gift to be looked after and not something to be treated with medication like a disease. He provided clients with a list of doctors that would provide those services.

Crisis Pregnancy Support's Māori liaison nurse is featured on Voice For Life's abortion law reform campaign page We Deserve Better, talking about her work at CPS. She is described as a nurse "who works in her community to uplift, nurture, and empower young pregnant wahine to keep their pēpi."

Last year, Crisis Pregnancy Support Wairarapa founding trustee and former chair Dr Mizpa Essed submitted to the Law Commission, saying if abortion was decriminalised, there would be "no protection at all for out little heart beating babies".

Internal Affairs would not be interviewed for this article. In an emailed response to questions, the department would not say whether it was aware it had been funding pro-life groups for at least 15 years (the grant applications RNZ has seen don't mention the charities are pro-life). In the same email, community operations manager Robyn Nicholas told RNZ that funding decisions were made by local committees made up of community-elected volunteers.

She said PCS and Crisis Pregnancy Support applications "showed that Cogs funding was being sought to deliver counselling services to vulnerable women and their families", and that local committees determined that both PCS and Crisis Pregnancy Support met local priorities and need.

But does counselling undertaken by organisations that are politically active and appear to be informed by religious beliefs fall foul of Cogs rules?

When asked if the department considered submissions on abortion law to the Law Commission and Parliament, speaking at pro-life events, or having staff feature in a Voice For Life video were considered political, the department did not directly respond.

Instead, a spokesperson said, via email, that assessment of Cogs applications includes "consideration of whether or not the activities the funding will be used for are for purposes that are specifically excluded."

The spokesperson said as long as Cogs funding was not applied directly to political activities, undertaking them did not breach the grant conditions. When asked if the department would request financial records from PCS or Crisis Pregnancy Support to demonstrate how grant money would be spent, the spokesperson said this was already a requirement.

"If money was applied to activities outside the conditions of the grant then the Department of Internal Affairs would review the grant and determine whether it needed to be repaid."

As well as not funding services that promote political or religious activities, Cogs guidelines also state grants are not to be given to services that duplicate existing services. Yet all New Zealanders can access free, face-to-face pre-decision and pre- and post-abortion counselling through district health boards.

Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond says DHB counsellors are trained to support clients to make a decision that is right for them. "The last thing we would want [is for a] woman to be led or coerced into carrying on with a pregnancy or terminating a pregnancy."

All counsellors affiliated with abortion providers are required to hold a relevant qualification or have equivalent training, be a registered member of their profession, be engaged in abortion counselling on a regular basis and have regular clinical supervision and peer review.

Despite the counselling services provided by PCS and Crisis Pregnancy Support doubling up with those available through the public health system, Nicholas said Internal Affairs, to date, "has had no need to consider whether these organisations are a duplication of services being delivered in one area".

The department would not rule out continuing to fund the organisations in the future.

*Names have been changed.

Internal Affairs has approved $300k worth of community grants to pro-life pregnancy counselling organisations. Source: rnz.co.nz