Sixteen years ago, Texas lawmakers created a small program with a big goal: persuading women not to have abortions. It was given a few million in federal anti-poverty dollars and saw fewer than a dozen people its first year.
Since then it’s ballooned. Alternatives to Abortion is poised to cost taxpayers $100 million over the next biennium — a twentyfold budget increase — and served more than 100,000 pregnant women and parents last year.
But the Legislature has required little information about what the program has accomplished.
It wasn’t until 2017 that lawmakers began requiring a public report on what contractors do with the money. The subcontracting process is “secret,” one lawmaker said. And state health officials don’t track how many abortions are prevented by the program. The abortion rate has steadily declined in Texas and the U.S. for decades, making it hard to decipher what, if any, role Alternatives to Abortion has played.
“I don’t know if this is untouchable by design,” said state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission. “If they have good outcomes, I would think that they would be proud of sharing that information.”
Critics say Alternatives to Abortion has eluded accountability in the often fiscally conservative Legislature, which this year requested a study on how to make safety net services cheaper and better. At the program’s worst, critics allege, it shames women seeking abortions and is a poor and expensive substitute for women’s medical care.
But proponents say Alternatives to Abortion meets a different need than heavily regulated medical clinics do — by offering social assistance to those who decide to “choose life in difficult circumstances.”
The program has overwhelming support in the Republican-led Texas Legislature, where lawmakers have pushed through budget increases and say it’s proven to be a massive success.