Mark Earley picked which of Virginia's women's centers got a windfall. Then abortion got involved. 

Shoe Money

Sometimes you can't give money away without getting grief for it — at least not when politics and abortion are involved.

Some abortion-rights groups are steamed with former Attorney General Mark L. Earley for giving money to a group they say doesn't deserve it.

In late May, Earley distributed an $800,000 jackpot to Virginia nonprofits from the state's antitrust settlement with Nine West, the shoe manufacturer. Now those groups are deciding how to spend the extra cash.

But Earley's choice to split about $180,970 of the funds among 18 crisis pregnancy centers across the state — including the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Metropolitan Richmond Inc. — has angered some abortion-rights groups.

"I call them 'fake clinics,'" Karen Raschke, a former Planned Parenthood lawyer and lobbyist in Richmond who now serves as a staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York, says of the centers. In such centers, Raschke says, nonprofessional counselors try to steer women away from abortions.

Raschke and some abortion-rights groups charge that Earley, now the Republican candidate for governor, used the settlement money as an opportunity to support those centers and to promote his personal anti-abortion beliefs.

The issue started last year, after women's-shoe manufacturer Nine West Group Inc. agreed to pay $34 million to settle a federal price-fixing lawsuit brought against it by all 50 states.

Since there was no clear way to pay the money to women who had been affected by the company, a federal judge divvied up the $34 million among the states, the District of Columbia and five territories. The judge ordered that the money was to be used for "women's health, educational, vocational and safety programs."

As its share, Virginia received an $804,308 windfall. But where to spend it? The answer was left to the state's office of the attorney general, as long as it followed the judge's guidelines.

A spokesman for Earley's office says Earley asked several attorneys in his consumer-protection division to put together a list of potential fund recipients. Then Earley decided which nonprofits received how much.

Four of the nonprofits Earley chose seemed devoid of controversy: Virginians Aligned Against Sexual Assault, the Virginia Primary Care Association and the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation, each of which received about $180,970, and the Danville-based Project Hope, which received $80,430.

But the Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which will receive a little more than $10,000 each, stood out for some people.

The crisis pregnancy centers promote an anti-woman agenda, charges the Virginia National Organization for Women in a statewide newsletter: "Although they claim they promote women's health, they actually promote an anti-choice right-wing political, social and religious agenda, personified in Virginia by Earley."

"Our concern with those centers is that they don't really provide medical care to women," says Grace Sparks, president of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood, "and they don't see contraception or birth control as a part of good health care for women."

Between October and December, Virginia NOW sent out media releases, held a press conference and objected to Earley's choice in a hearing in New York before the federal judge that oversaw the Nine West settlement. Earley's office sent a team to rebut.

In the end, the funds went through. The federal judge held that "the government may make a value judgment that supports childbirth over abortion."

On May 25, Earley announced that settlement checks were in the mail — including to the crisis pregnancy centers.

The Crisis Pregnancy Center of Metropolitan Richmond, which runs on a $300,000 annual budget, hasn't decided what to do with the $10,000. (The nonprofits must use the money to fund something not currently supported in their budget.)

"We really haven't talked about it yet," says Bruce Kemp Jr., executive director of the center. "We're going to be looking at all our needs." For example, he says, the group may buy infants' car seats for women who can't afford them.

As for the charges by abortion-rights groups, Kemp says, his center on West Cary Street offers free services, including counseling, referrals, pregnancy tests, maternity and second-hand baby clothes and financial aid.

"We're a distinctly Christian organization," Kemp says, but adds that "one of our thoughts is to minister and not manipulate." If a woman decides to have an abortion, he says, the center will back her, pray for her — and continue to help her.

The Richmond-area center, founded in 1983, is supported mostly by individual donations and aid from churches, and hopes to open a second office in the North Side that will offer first-trimester medical services including free ultrasounds.

The attorney general's office maintains that the recipients of the fund "perform valuable services that benefit women."

But Sparks, of Planned Parenthood, remains disappointed by Earley's decision. "It's a sad thing that public monies would be used in that fashion — to promote what really is a personal point of view," Sparks says.

Meanwhile, other recipients of the Nine West money are grateful for the help. The Richmond-based Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation, for example, says it already knows where its settlement money will go — to put on a statewide conference and support other educational efforts.

"It'll be a huge boost for our educational outreach," says Executive Director Christine Clarke. "And hopefully it'll save some lives."


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