A brief history of pregnancy resource centers

January 28, 2022

Pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) are local, nonprofit organizations that provide support and information to women and men faced with making decisions about an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy. The history of the modern pregnancy resource center movement began in the the late 1960s, as several states began to remove legal restrictions on abortion. 

How pregnancy resource centers began 

In response to this shift toward legalization, Robert J. Pearson, a building contractor and Catholic pro-life advocate, established a foundation in 1969 to assist in the opening of volunteer-run Pregnancy Problem Centers across Hawaii. The centers offered free pregnancy testing, counseling, and some emergency and financial help for women considering abortion. 

Pearson also wrote and published a 93-page manual called, How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center. While well-intended, the manual has been used to discredit the PRC movement because of its use of deceptive practices, such as providing misleading answers that give the impression such centers provide abortions. 

The first network of pregnancy centers was founded in 1968 in Toronto, Ontario, under the name Birthright in Canada. These centers soon spread to the United States as Birthright International. Other groups sprung up, and some of the first modern crisis pregnancy centers began helping women in California in 1968. Within three years there were 70 centers, many of which joined together to form Alternatives to Abortion (later known as Heartbeat International). In 1975, two years after the nationwide legalization of abortion, theologian Harold O. J. Brown formed the Christian Action Council, a group which would later adopt the name Care Net. Care Net opened its first PRC in 1983. 

In 1994 the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) was established to provide legal counsel to PRCs. Today, Heartbeat International, Care Net, and NIFLA are the three major PRC networks, operating nearly 2,000 pregnancy centers.

The use of ultrasound machines

Ultrasound machines were invented in the 1960s, but became more widespread for obstetrical use in the 1980s. NIFLA was the first of the national pregnancy center organizations to promote acquisition of ultrasound technology by the centers and to provide trainings in its use by certified and qualified personnel. Since the launch of its Institute in Limited Obstetric Ultrasound in 1998, NIFLA has trained over 4,500 pregnancy center healthcare professionals and administrators in the legal and medical “how to’s” of obstetric ultrasound. 

Today, about half of PRCs in America offer ultrasound services to the women they serve at little or no cost. In 2010 alone, close to 230,000 ultrasounds were performed at PRCs. The use of ultrasounds helps to provide confirmation of pregnancy, verifies the developing baby’s gestational age, and provides essential information that can provide a new perspective for women thinking about having an abortion. As Barbara Shoun says, “Ultrasound technology is proving to be the most convincing piece of evidence the pro-life community has to offer young women who think their unborn children aren’t babies.”

(Through the Psalm 139 Project, the ERLC seeks to save lives by donating ultrasound machines to PRCs.)

Sources of funding 

Although most PRCs have been funded through donations, additional sources began in the 1990s. 

In 1996, Choose Life, Inc. was formed in Florida with the idea to use license plate sales to fund PRCs. By 2018, the Choose Life license plate was available in 32 states and Washington, D.C., and the plates had raised over $28 million in those states for the causes of life and adoption. 

During this same period, President George W. Bush included support of pregnancy resource centers as part of his administration’s pro-life agenda. In 2002, President Bush told March for Life participants, “A generous society values all human life . . .  and that is why my administration opposes partial-birth abortion and public funding for abortion; why we support teen abstinence and crisis pregnancy programs . . .” 

Prior to the Bush administration, only a few PRCs received federal funding. However, between 2001 through 2005, over $30 million in federal funds was provided to more than 50 PRCs across the country. This funding was discontinued under President Obama, but President Trump awarded a $1.7 million family planning grant to a group that runs PRCs. 

Spreading the gospel

PRCs serve more than 2.3 million people each year, providing such services as pregnancy tests, ultrasound and medical services, abstinence education, options consulting and education, and parenting and childbirth classes. But many also aim to share the gospel with their clients. For instance, Care Net reports that over the past seven years, more than 1.2 million people heard the gospel at one of their centers.