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Questions raised about anti-abortion groups getting Va. license plate fee

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; B01

When a Virginia driver purchases a specialty "Choose Life" anti-abortion license plate, $15 of the $25 processing fee goes to Heartbeat International, a Christian group that distributes the money to pregnancy resource centers located across the state.

Critics say the license plate program doesn't do enough to determine whether a clinic is qualified for the money. One pregnancy center listed by several anti-abortion groups as a certified clinic -- the Mattingly Test Center in Loudoun County -- is a two-story brick house owned by Linda Mattingly, a former director at Care Net, a Leesburg-based pregnancy network. There are no signs in front indicating it is a clinic, the Internal Revenue Service has no record of it as a 503(c) nonprofit, and it is not registered as a corporation with the Virginia secretary of state.

A woman who answered the door of the Ashburn house last week said pregnancy services had been, but no longer were, provided there. She did not give her name before closing the door. The Washington Post tried to reach Mattingly by phone, but messages were not returned.

Mattingly is listed on Heartbeat's Web site as among the anti-abortion clinics in Virginia in good standing and, according to the Richmond Coalition for Life, is eligible for funding.

Kristin Hansen, a Care Net spokeswoman, said that the Mattingly Test Center is "not an entity we are aware of" and that its listing might have been an "inadvertent mistake" by Care Net. Peggy Hartshorn, president of Ohio-based Heartbeat International, said the emphasis should be on "the incredible work" that pregnancy centers provide. She said Heartbeat officials will, nevertheless, be vetting pregnancy centers in Virginia as the state money begins to come in.

As of Tuesday, 1,678 of the license plates had been purchased, and $10,170 has been earmarked for Heartbeat, said Melanie Stokes, a DMV spokeswoman, and Heartbeat officials.

Questions about the Mattingly Test Center's status were first raised through a year-long undercover investigation by the nonprofit arm of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the abortion-rights group that has focused its attention on crisis pregnancy centers and the literature they give to pregnant women. The group plans to detail its findings at a Wednesday news conference in Richmond.

In its 39-page report, titled "Crisis Pregnancy Centers Revealed," NARAL Pro-Choice volunteers and workers said they spent a year investigating 52 anti-abortion pregnancy centers in Virginia, finding that 38 do not have medically trained or supervised personnel on staff, and that two-thirds of the centers provided "some degree of medically erroneous information." The report says 16 trained volunteers went undercover to more than two dozen pregnancy centers and posed as women who were worried they were pregnant, said Emily Polak, deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

"When you're telling women who are scared about unintended pregnancies that condoms have holes and abortions cause cancer, it's a public-health threat," Polak said.

Anti-abortion groups say NARAL's efforts are part of a political agenda meant to discredit church-affiliated pregnancy centers, which they say provide counseling and support services at no cost to the public and with little complaint from former clients.

"One has to question, in this economy where many of us are committed to seeing abortion reduced, why anyone would needle or harass faith-based charities that provide practical support and help to pregnant women," said Hansen, of Care Net.

The state funding for the centers comes from sales of the bright yellow "Choose Life" license plate, one of 225 specialty plates offered by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The state General Assembly approved the anti-abortion license plate during its legislative session last year.

The application fee for the plate, which has a drawing of a boy and girl under the words "Choose Life," is $25. The first $15,000 goes to the DMV. After that, $15 of the $25 fee goes to Heartbeat.

State officials say they are limited by law in what type of information they can request from organizations that receive specialty plate funds. "It's all done by the General Assembly. We just send the funds that customers give us to the appropriate revenue-sharing organizations," Stokes said. Virginia is one of 24 states that offer the "Choose Life" plates.

In some instances, the report says, center counselors told women that the risk of suicide and cancer increases after abortion. In one video shown to a volunteer, a woman told of her abortion and how she eventually became a "crack whore in prison." When asked if that could happen, a counselor at the unnamed facility said, "It's a possibility," according to the report by NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

One of the pregnancy centers cited in the report, the Assist Pregnancy Center in Burke, has acknowledged that some of the fliers it had distributed were misleading and outdated. Jane P. Fuller, executive director of the Assist Pregnancy Center on Backlick Road, said the pamphlets have been removed but stressed that the center never had billed itself as a medical facility.

Efforts by abortion-rights groups in Virginia mirror those in Maryland, which has been at the forefront of the anti-abortion pregnancy center debate. In November, Baltimore passed a law requiring such clinics to post signs indicating that they do not provide abortions or refer people for birth control, and Montgomery County officials are considering a similar policy.

Staff writer Michael Laris and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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