Mississippi's latest move in its anti-abortion agenda? A tax break for corporate donations
There is no way to measure the amount of strategy that led to the end of federally legal abortion in the U.S. Activists, protesters, politicians and judges all played a part.
Funding from major corporations, including oil and gas companies in the Gulf South, was also a key component — funneling money into the anti-abortion movement and anti-abortion political candidates in the Gulf South for years.
A new Mississippi law called The Pregnancy Resource Act gives corporations a break on their taxes if they donate to pregnancy resource centers. These are not health care centers. These are organizations that point expecting mothers toward community support and resources, and away from abortion. Now that the state’s last abortion clinic is closed and others across the region shuttered, pregnancy resource centers are often advertised as the first stop for anyone dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.
A Gulf States Newsroom analysis of charitable giving foundation data shows that all types of corporations and their employees have already donated to pregnancy resource centers across the Gulf South through their private foundations in the form of grants or employee matching funds. Oil and gas companies, a political force in the region far removed from women’s health care, stand out.
The Gulf States Newsroom found that the charitable foundations of oil and gas companies and utilities were giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to pregnancy resource centers and policy groups directly linked to the abortion bans long before Mississippi’s new tax credit.
The same corporations that helped bring this major policy shift to light now stand to gain from the new tax break. The new law gives them financial incentive to continue donating. Mississippi has set aside $3.5 million dollars in tax credits for the effort for 2022.
The state’s tax incentive is brand new, but by September, nearly $550,000-worth of credits were already claimed.
It’s not clear who claimed them because the Mississippi Department of Revenue will not release any information on taxpayers who took advantage of this credit or ones before it.
Private charitable foundations connected to corporations are not eligible to receive the tax credit, but they offer some clues into which companies’ dollars are going to pregnancy resource centers now and where those dollars might come from in the future.
In a state where childbirth outcomes — especially for people of color — are dismal, Mississippi state lawmakers are promoting facilities that provide no medical oversight and a clear anti-abortion agenda. Now that abortion is illegal, the tax incentive is one of several moves state leadership has taken to enshrine its anti-abortion agenda.
A first stop for pregnancy care
On a hot, summer day in Mississippi, a young, Black woman walks into one of those pregnancy resource centers, Birthright of Jackson. She says she’s excited, but also incredibly scared to be pregnant for the second time. Just as she nearly bursts into tears in a lobby filled with onesies, family photos and diaper towers, Monica Walton swoops in.
“I’m here to hold her hand, look into her eyes, listen to her story, and let her know she’s not alone and that we will gather as many resources as we can to help her through this,” said Walton, the director of the center.
In her more than three decades at the center, she’s comforted hundreds of women and helped them get donated maternity clothes or baby toys.
Prenatal healthcare is particularly important to mothers in the Gulf South where Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show at least a quarter of pregnancy-related deaths happen up to a year after delivery. The Gulf South has some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation. While the national rate is 20.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, the rate is 30.2 in Mississippi, 31.8 in Louisiana, and 36.2 in Alabama.
Mississippi state lawmakers are promoting the use of pregnancy resource centers, but some public health experts worry these centers could be mistaken for prenatal care by expectant mothers.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves claims it’s the first state to pass this type of legislation, but other states, like Missouri and Arizona, have similar legislation that gives corporations and individuals a chance to benefit from donations to these centers. Some states, like Florida, have similar tax credits that contain explicit carve-outs for gas and oil production taxes.
Like Mississippi, none of the other states would disclose information about who took advantage of the credit. But it is clear that the ones who have had tax incentives in place have already granted tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to taxpayers who are donating to pregnancy resource centers.
The next wave of anti-abortion strategy
Jameson Taylor, the bill’s architect and a senior fellow with Pro-life Mississippi, says this credit works because even businesses that aren’t explicitly pro-life end up supporting that movement. In fact, that was the point of the credit all along.
“The idea is that we can use tax policy to encourage public investments in nonprofit organizations,” he said. “So, sure, there is a pro-life ethos, and we want businesses to invest in the pro-life ethos. But in doing that, you are investing in women and families. I mean, that's what the pro-life emphasis is about.”
It’s not clear if the lawmakers who voted for the new policy were aligned with that goal because there’s barely any record of how the Pregnancy Resource Act gained traction and support in the state legislature. Stewards of the state’s capitol library said there are no meeting notes or videos available. The act was swiftly signed into law in April by Gov. Reeves in a public ceremony, just days after lawmakers passed it.
MS is leading the US in passing laws that protect life.— Governor Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) April 21, 2022
Today, we did it again.
Proud to sign into law HB 1685 (the first of its kind) which authorizes $3.5 million in tax credits for making donations to pregnancy resource centers and crisis pregnancy centers around MS. pic.twitter.com/THcNFEuMpC
De’Keither Stamps, one of the co-sponsors of the bill is a Democrat in the state House. He said he decided to support the bill because of Mississippi’s strong anti-abortion stance. Knowing that wouldn’t change, he said his goal was to invest in some “alternatives.”
“I think corporations come to the table and, in some cases, they direct the wind and, in some cases, they follow the wind,” said Stamps. “If I can get a slice of pie to put into healthcare for women … that's a win.”
He sees the tax credit as a small victory even if it means giving credits to businesses whose operations or political influence in the region aren’t aligned with his views.
Democrat Representative Zakiya Summers, the only representative to vote against the bill, remains skeptical.
“When I saw it, I said, ‘Oh, so this is the plan,’ ” Summers said. “This is the response to if Roe v. Wade [being] overturned — to provide what they would call access to health care, but with a whole lot of strings attached.”
For instance, corporations can’t just donate to any pregnancy resource center and get the tax credit, it has to be certified by Choose Life Mississippi — a nonprofit anti-abortion group.
It’s hard to know what these centers actually do and what the donations will support. Almost every center the Gulf States Newsroom reached out to in Jackson, Mississippi declined an interview.
What’s in it for corporations?
While some centers may gladly welcome the donations, Walton, at Birthright of Jackson, said the link to corporate funding does make her uncomfortable. She doesn’t want to even accidentally take money from groups that aren’t explicitly anti-abortion.
“I guess each center would have to make their decisions,” Walton said. “We do try to associate only with people that we know are truly pro-life… We wouldn't want them to be funding both, because we don't support both."
Her concern isn't unfounded. It’s well documented throughout American history that corporations not only sway political and social agendas but actively buy into them in order to make a profit.
“Some companies blend their goals for building successful businesses with a very explicit embrace of socially conservative Christian values,” said Darren Dochuk, a historian of faith in the oil and gas industry. “And they are going to subsequently use whatever profits they generate to prop up, support, and defend policies that they considered essential to their worldview.”
But when it comes to the Gulf South, Dochuk says the oil and gas industry has a significant influence. He says a lot of the founding fathers of the oil and gas industry created a type of “corporate culture'' in the South where they “use their money subsequently to reinforce what they consider to be traditional family values.
“This is a phenomenon that is very familiar across the entire Southern rim of the country,” Dochuk said.
It’s hard to know the motives of the oil and gas companies currently funding the anti-abortion movement because a lot of them wouldn’t talk about donation strategy. Most donations are coming from companies’ charitable arms, which can include grants given by the company or funds distributed via programs matching employee gifts.
But the list of companies and charitable foundations that donated includes a lot of household names in the Gulf States like:
Ergon, Inc. is a family-owned private company that refines and distributes petroleum products nationally and internationally. It was founded in Mississippi by Leslie Lampton, Sr., who became one of the richest men in the state.
Over the past decade, the company’s charitable nonprofit has given nearly $150,000 dollars to the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank linked to the state’s 15-week abortion ban that ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade.
The company’s foundation has also consistently given to groups like Bethany Christian Services of Mississippi, which was an anti-abortion pregnancy counseling and adoption agency, and to Lifeline Children Services, which does pregnancy counseling, fostering and adoption services.
Ergon insists that “the Ergon Foundation operates independently from Ergon Inc. and has its own separate board of directors and officers.” However, tax documents show that board includes the former CEO of Ergon Inc. and several members of the Lampton family, who are also principal owners of the company.
Entergy Mississippi, and others:
Entergy Mississippi gave $1000 to the Center for Pregnancy Choices through a corporate grant in 2020. And the company is listed alongside Ergon as a sponsor on the Center for Pregnancy Choices website in Vicksburg.
Subsidiaries of Southern Company, one of the largest utilities in the South, donated to anti-abortion groups through their charitable arms as well. Alabama Power’s charitable foundation has given nearly $220,000 over the last decade to the Alabama Policy Institute, another conservative think tank linked to anti-abortion legislation via its litigation arm the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty.
And, the charitable foundation of another subsidiary, Georgia Power, has given around $20,000 to pregnancy crisis centers over the last decade.
The charitable arm of Arena Energy, a Gulf Coast oil and gas exploration company, has donated over $40,000 to Care Net Pregnancy Center in Texas, over the last decade.
Shell Oil Company Foundation:
It’s not just regional companies’ charitable foundations funding anti-abortion causes, international companies are linked to donations as well.
Shell Oil Company Foundation – the nonprofit arm of the oil and gas company – through its employee matching gifts program gave more than $295,000 to dozens of pregnancy crisis centers across the Gulf South since 2010. In the same time period the company’s foundation has given around $135,000 to anti-abortion organizations like Houston Right To Life and at least $36,000 to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit religious group that is directly tied to supporting anti-abortion candidates and Supreme Court justices. Over the decade the Shell foundation also gave over $225,000 to Planned Parenthood.
Who is really giving?
These corporations try to distance themselves from the donations made through their foundations.
But, Alexander Reid, a tax lawyer with expertise in tax-exempt organizations, said companies do get some benefits from those donations.
"There are two benefits. One is goodwill that accrues to the company brand from making a payment to a charitable organization,” he said. “The second would be that a matching gift program is a tax-free benefit."
Essentially, companies can write off matching gift programs on their taxes. But, with Mississippi’s new tax credit, companies can no longer live in the shadows of their private foundations. They have to donate directly, in order to get the tax credit, according to Taylor.
Corporate giving often appears ambiguous. For example, donations to anti-abortion groups and Planned Parenthood may seem contradictory. Curtis Smith, a spokesperson for Shell, says some organizations Shell employees give to have competing interests or ideologies. But that’s because giving is “a personal decision not directed by the company.”
“This is a common practice at tens-of-thousand workplaces across the country,” Smith wrote.
Spokespeople at Entergy and Southern Company made similar arguments — that the funding isn’t really a reflection of company values because employees chose to give, not them.
“That's not exactly forthcoming or honest,” Dochuk said.
Dochuk says companies often use employee-based programs to direct their charitable or political giving, so they don’t have to publicly take on an agenda – whether that’s political or religious.
He points to a mid-1970s Federal Election Commission decision that made it easier for companies to give money to political candidates or causes with a level of plausible deniability.
“I think what you're seeing today is part of a longer history going back to the seventies, at least, in which companies led by conservative leaders are using this mechanism to funnel money into candidates and causes they deem worthwhile without necessarily having to shoulder the burden of saying ‘this is our contribution,’” Dochuk said.
Companies argue that they don’t endorse organizations or causes that their employees are supporting, but in the case of the Pregnancy Resource Act, the impact on women’s reproductive health care in the region is the same. Company money inevitably goes to groups tied to an anti-abortion policy.
Regardless of the motivations of the companies and the politics behind corporate giving, mothers in Mississippi will be the most impacted by the new policy. Though, it’s not clear exactly what that impact will be.
Many anti-abortion advocates, like Terri Herring, say donations to pregnancy resource centers are the best way to help women in a post-Roe world.
Herring, of Choose Life Mississippi, says the tax credit could significantly expand their pregnancy resource centers’ capacity, and communities of color will benefit because it will lead to "more African-American babies.”
“And our pregnancy resource centers are going to have to become much stronger to be able to meet their needs,” Herring said.
But Getty Israel, a health clinic owner and population health expert, doesn't believe that’s true at all, at least not for Black women who are statistically the most likely to get abortions in the Gulf South. According to 2019 CDC surveillance data, Black people accounted for 74% of abortions in Mississippi.
Israel said that’s because most pregnancy resource centers don’t provide comprehensive services that address underlying health and social issues like obesity or poverty.
“Just ending abortion won't change the dynamics in these communities,” Israel said. “People who are running these so-called pregnancy resource centers, they don't live in these communities. They don't walk these streets. They don't know these people.”
Black women have historically had the worst birth outcomes in Mississippi, but they are not the ones running most pregnancy resource centers in the state. As a Black woman, Israel has been addressing those negative birth outcomes in Mississippi’s communities of color — including premature births, low birth weight babies, and maternal and infant death — since around 2015.
Israel’s clinic, Sisters in Birth, employs a certified nurse midwife and community health workers. They provide childbirth and health education, breastfeeding support and home visitations. In addition to some types of medical services, Israel also provides resources they need to take care of their babies — like phone bill payments, prenatal clothing, housing, and gas money.
While Israel doesn’t call her clinic a “pregnancy resource center,” she says they are both trying to provide support and aid for pregnant women in Mississippi, but she doesn’t qualify for the state’s new tax credit.
She’s not explicitly pro-life, so she can’t be certified by Choose Life Mississippi. She also doesn’t want to be a part of the organization, because she believes the affiliated pregnancy resource centers are “misleading the public” and talking expectant mothers out of getting an abortion.
“We don't play those games here,” Israel said. “We're very clear that we don't support abortions, but we're not going to lie to you to get you in here to convince you not to have an abortion.”
Israel also points to the statistics surrounding birth outcomes for Black women, which she says Mississippi lawmakers are aware of but continue to ignore. This year, the state failed to extend postpartum Medicaid, which would have helped vulnerable new mothers. Supporters — including some Republicans — called it a true pro-life policy that could save lives, but the bill died in the House before it could go up for a vote.
Another bill would have given Israel $1.5 million to fund a birthing center. She’s been searching for funding to create a space that can address the causes of poor birth outcomes for Black women – like lack of social support and job security. That bill, too, died in committee.
For Israel, the new Pregnancy Resource Act is just the latest on a long list of failures to help Black women in Mississippi.
“If I could get Shell gas to write a check for my birth center, I would take it,” Israel said, who added that she was looking for companies to finance her birth center through the tax credit.
“But it was designed to help Republicans carry out their political agenda. It's not about the babies. It's not about women.”
Methodology: Funding for pregnancy resource centers can be hard to track because many centers do not list their donors on tax forms and some explicitly offer anonymity to funders. This analysis relied on ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer to identify the charitable foundations of companies that donated to pregnancy resource centers, anti-abortion groups and Planned Parenthood. Austin Fast of NPR’s investigation desk helped with this analysis.
Editor's note: We've changed some things since this story was first published.
- We added a word to the first sentence to clarify that the overturning of Roe v. Wade ended federally legal abortion.
- In the section detailing which states have similar legislation to Mississippi's new Pregnancy Resource Act, we've clarified that some states offer tax credits to corporations and others to individuals.
- Clarified that Ergon, Inc. donated to Bethany Christian Services and Lifeline Children’s Services but that the two entities don’t have a business relationship.
This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR. Support for health equity coverage comes from the Commonwealth Fund.