Tara couldn't afford to keep the baby.
It was fall 2021, and she and her husband were "totally broke and really struggling," she said.
They were staying at Tara's mother-in-law's home in Texas, sleeping with their kids in a converted garage with no air conditioning or heat. They could barely buy formula for their 3-month-old or food for their toddler. Her husband, an electrician, hadn't had work since the pandemic started, and Tara had incapacitating postpartum depression. "It was hard for me to get out of bed every day," she said.
Then, Tara, who was 24, learned she was pregnant for the third time in two years.
She was deeply conflicted about what to do. "Morally, I was very against abortion," Tara said. (Business Insider agreed to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy.) But what choice did they have? There wasn't much time to decide, either. Texas had just banned most abortions after six weeks, and Tara was about that far along. Help would be hard to come by if they kept the baby. The state's hard-line stance on abortion had not come with an expansion of the safety net for new parents.
Tara turned to Facebook to vent. That's where someone told her about Let Them Live.
Founded by staunch anti-abortion activists in 2019, Let Them Live offers women who are considering abortions financial support — so long as they sign a contract agreeing not to terminate their pregnancies.
The organization's mission, according to its website, is that "no mom should have to choose between paying her bills or her baby's life." The help it offers includes assistance with rent, gas, groceries, and utilities and generally ends a few months after the baby arrives.
Tara saw Let Them Live's crowdfunding campaigns raising thousands of dollars for women in situations as desperate as hers. "Reading through Let Them Live's Facebook posts gave me hope," she said. "Maybe with financial support, it could be possible — difficult, but possible — for me to at least get through the pregnancy."
She got in touch and said a Let Them Live counselor replied the same day.
Early calls with women are intended, in part, to decide how "abortion determined" they are, based on factors like their marital status, age, and if they have had previous abortions, the group told Business Insider. Let Them Live lays out an assistance plan from there.
With the clock running out if she did want to terminate the pregnancy, Tara was offered a contract with a "financial assistance plan." The contract, which BI has reviewed, included $3,200 for groceries — one $400 Walmart gift card a month, for eight months — and 10 "essential baby items" of her choice, for which it didn't specify a dollar maximum. Her counselor also texted that Let Them Live "could help with a deposit and your monthly rent, for a little while" if Tara and her family found an apartment. Tara said she was told her contract could be updated to include this once she'd signed a lease.
In return, Tara agreed not to terminate her pregnancy and to follow a long list of other conditions.
Let Them Live could "use, copy, store, edit, publish, and distribute" her ultrasound pictures, her pregnancy story, and photographs of her or her baby "that you send us or that are publicly available." "This is to help our donors to understand your situation," the contract explained. She would also have weekly calls with her counselor, apply for government benefits, and waive her privacy rights for her protected health information.
Tara signed the contract in February 2022, when she was four months pregnant.
She was in such a desperate situation, she said she didn't notice the contract contained a clause allowing Let Them Live to "end financial assistance" at its "sole discretion."
"They told me that they would do these things," she said. "And so I just kind of signed it."
The support she was offered was modest by Let Them Live's standards: A month earlier, another woman was promised over $50,000 in help. But to Tara, it was "almost like a dream come true and a path out of the terrible situation we were in."
"The decision ultimately came down to the fact we had to feed our family right then," she added.
'Too many moms'
When the first Walmart gift card arrived, Tara and her husband breathed a sigh of relief.
But then, bit by bit, Let Them Live scaled back its generosity. "The more that my pregnancy progressed, the more stuff they started cutting off," Tara said.
When she was six months pregnant, Tara and her husband found an apartment. After signing the lease, Tara, overjoyed, asked Let Them Live how to set up the rent support. It was a benefit she said she and her counselor talked about in almost all of their weekly FaceTime calls.
"I'm so sorry," her counselor replied in a text seen by BI. "We had too many moms come in this month and already promised that money out." Tara was told to apply for her county's "utility assistance" program, which she said had a wait time of over a year.
The family borrowed money from a relative to pay the first month's rent, and over time, their debts just grew.
A few weeks later, Tara got an email from Let Them Live's finance team to say it was "pausing its Grocery Gift Cards program." When Tara asked them to reconsider since she'd been relying on the Walmart cards to feed her family, Let Them Live agreed to continue sending the cards for two more months. Still, that was $800 less than Tara had been counting on.
When her new son arrived earlier than his due date, "nothing was ready," she said. The family had to "ask on Facebook for diapers." They substituted their toddler daughter's formula with cow's milk, which cost less.
Her newborn was still in the neonatal intensive care unit when more bad news dropped. "Due to our funding," her counselor said, Tara could have just three of the seven essential baby items she'd picked out. "I was really distraught about it," Tara said.
The nonprofit eventually reversed course and gave Tara all seven items she'd picked, which included car seats, baby bottles, and a portable crib. But she said she had to "fight" for them by begging her counselor to lobby the finance team.
Let Them Live later told BI that the gift-card program had been paused because the group couldn't track how women were spending the money, but that in Tara's case removing them had been a "mistake." Tara's request for rent support was turned down because it wasn't part of her contract. It was an oversight "on our behalf, but then also on her behalf because she signed it," the group said.
In retrospect, Tara said she's not sure she would have continued her pregnancy had she known what would happen.
"If they can't provide this amount of support to the moms in their program, they should make that clear before any contract is signed," she said.
"It seems predatory to me to exploit vulnerable women in this way."
'I feel conned'
Tara is not alone in feeling misled. BI spoke with three other women who signed contracts with Let Them Live and said the group failed to deliver the support it promised. Between them, they said Let Them Live never paid $30,660 included in their contracts.
All the women said they were at least five months pregnant, and their options were narrowing when they were told the support would be cut. All of them carried their pregnancies to term.
"I feel conned into keeping this baby," one said.
BI has reviewed their contracts, signed between 2021 and 2023, and select messages and emails the women exchanged with Let Them Live. BI agreed to use pseudonyms to protect their privacy but knows their real names.
When confronted with BI's reporting, Nathan Berning, Let Them Live's CEO and cofounder, said the group had made mistakes and would make good on $9,460 in payments to three of the women. In Tara's case, he said Let Them Live will send the two $400 gift cards she was denied.
He pointed to a period in 2022 when he said the group was "overwhelmed" by high staff turnover and a spike in requests, and needed to "slam on the brakes."
"We offered too much support to too many people and we didn't have the ability to financially support all of those moms at that time," Berning said in an interview.
This period overlaps with the Supreme Court overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which removed the federal right to an abortion. Let Them Live's grocery gift-card program was suspended for 17 women several weeks after the court's decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization was leaked in draft form in early May. Once the ruling was handed down in June, "our funding started to slow down," Berning said.
Yet Let Them Live continued to promise money to more women at this time. The women who had already entered into contracts with the group could be far along in their pregnancies when they learned they would get less than they'd been counting on.
The Indiana-based nonprofit says it signed contracts with a total of 177 women in 2022 and 110 in 2023, including women in the US and a handful in the UK, Canada, Mexico, and Australia. It says that it has "helped 887 women cancel their abortions" since 2019, though some women received only counseling and coaching.
Philip Hackney, an expert in nonprofit law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, read the women's contracts for BI and noted how lopsided they were because the women were "obligated to all of these things," including giving up "significant" health-privacy rights in exchange for relatively small sums of money.
"I would say that feels abusive to me," he said.
'An untapped market'
Let Them Live's founders, Emily and Nathan Berning, said they got the idea for the group in 2019, soon after they were married.
One night, Nathan stumbled across a Facebook post about a pregnant woman who'd been evicted from her home in the middle of winter and planned to get an abortion unless she could come up with $1,200. That was about how much money the couple had in their bank account and, to "save a life," they sent the funds to this stranger, who canceled her abortion.
They had discovered, in Emily's words, an "untapped market" for stopping abortions.
The Bernings, who are 28 and 30, respectively, often compare themselves and their mission to Oskar Schindler, who saved over 1,000 Jews from the Nazis. Let Them Live's website includes a gallery of newborns' photos under the caption "Babies Saved."
Now, four years later, Let Them Live has 55 employees and about 125 volunteers. In that time, the group has taken in $7.5 million, according to tax filings. The Bernings said most of that money comes from monthly donations and crowdfunding campaigns. Emily and Nathan both reported salaries of $6,497 in 2019; in their most recent tax returns, from 2022, they each reported making $131,000.
Nathan told BI Let Them Live is the "answer" to critics who say anti-abortion activists do little to help women.
Even as the anti-abortion movement celebrates a string of successes in the courts and state legislatures, recent data suggests that the number of abortions has actually gone up. The Bernings are among a younger generation of activists who have embraced more compassionate language that centers the needs of pregnant women.
"If we said, 'I want to help you' to pregnant women in crisis, instead of 'Your body, your choice,' think of how many lives we could save," Emily has said.
The group's fundraising success reveals both the sympathy people have for women facing unplanned pregnancies and the recognition of "an enormous gap in the social safety net," said Mary Ziegler, a leading abortion historian and a law professor at the University of California. "I think it is a testimony to how much unmet need there is in the United States since Roe was overturned," she said.
The Bernings were both raised Catholic and identify as nondenominational Christians. They met through the Leadership Institute, a boot camp for young conservatives. Other alumni of the group include Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, former Vice President Mike Pence, and Lila Rose, who was called the "face" of the millennial anti-abortion movement by The Atlantic in 2018.
Both have deep ties to the conservative movement. As a student at Colorado State University, Emily worked with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a powerhouse Christian legal group, to sue the school after it denied funding to its Students for Life chapter, which Emily led, to bring an anti-abortion speaker to campus.
Nathan was a field coordinator for the Leadership Institute and helped set up 100 chapters on college campuses. He also ran a text messaging service for Ben Carson's 2016 presidential campaign. (On the trail, Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, compared women who get abortions to slaveholders.)
The Bernings have shared their own fertility struggles and attempts to get pregnant through embryo donation, a process that involves implanting embryos left over after another patient's IVF procedure. Emily, who has tattoos of a fetus and the words "PRO LIFE" on her arms, has described it as "rescuing" babies from a "frozen orphanage."
While promoting itself as empowering to women, Let Them Live has maintained ties to groups and tactics that mislead and pressure pregnant women who might be considering abortion. It takes referrals from crisis pregnancy centers, which reproductive-rights advocates have accused of targeting vulnerable people with coercion, including using "sidewalk counselors" who stand outside abortion clinics and try to dissuade women from entering. The group has also shared dangerous misinformation on social media, including that abortion is never necessary to save a woman's life, when in fact, conditions like ectopic pregnancy and preeclampsia can be fatal.
'We couldn't trust what she was saying'
Based on interviews, Let Them Live's ability to pay out the promised support seemed to shift based on the likelihood that a woman would in fact go through with an abortion.
Alana signed a contract with the group in April 2022, accepting $10,890 for her rent and utility bills. Her partner had left and she was "really scared and looking for any kind of support."
Six weeks later, Let Them Live told her it was "pausing" the payments. Alana says her counselor told her the group was out of money. She was six months pregnant.
When Alana, who lives in Florida, replied by saying she would terminate her pregnancy, Let Them Live agreed to restart the payments but only under the condition that she get a job, something that had not been part of her contract. According to notes from Alana's counselor that Nathan Berning read aloud during an interview with BI, the counselor was focused on "guiding her into adulthood."
Alana did get a job but said that persistent pregnancy pain made it impossible for her to continue working. She said Let Them Live demanded a doctor's note to prove this; otherwise, her payments would be cut again. The doctor's note confirming her complaints had the wrong date, Alana said, and rather than request a correction from her doctor, she made the change herself, which Alana called a "dumb" mistake.
Let Them Live found out about this and cut her payments entirely. She's still furious that Let Them Live "tortured" her with new conditions when she'd been promised the money without these strings attached.
Nathan Berning said Let Them Live's records suggest Alana's payments were stopped because her counselor felt she was "overexaggerating" and "was not actually going to get an abortion." He read aloud notes from Alana's counselor, which said: "I think there's a very high possibility she's using the baby to manipulate us into helping her financially."
"There's a tendency with some of the women that we help to try and make it seem like they're more abortion-determined than they actually are in order to get support," he told BI. But he said Alana's support being cut was "incorrectly decided."
Berning said the group would pay Alana $3,660 for two months of rent and six months of utility payments to cover the full amount it initially agreed to.
"The stress I endured at the most inconvenient times during my already very sad and lonely pregnancy from an establishment that promised security and hope was horrible," said Alana.
Another woman, Sarah, was promised $11,200 in January this year for overnight childcare, which the group said would paid after she gave birth. Her partner was in jail, and she had chronic fatigue syndrome, which she said made it impossible for her to care for a newborn and her two other children alone. Seven weeks from her due date, Let Them Live said it would not be sending her the funds because it suspected her of fraud.
Nathan Berning admitted there "probably isn't like 100% proof" for some of its concerns, but ultimately, "we couldn't trust what she was saying to us."
Sarah provided BI with documents, including emails, backing up the claims she made to Let Them Live. As her due date approached, she told BI she considered suicide. She eventually found another anti-abortion organization that provided support after she had her baby in June. Without this, she told BI, "I have no idea what I would have done or where I would be now."
"They want to post on social media about all the babies they've 'saved,'" Sarah said. "I don't think they care about the mothers at all."
'Harassed' in 'a hospital bed'
When one woman was in the process of terminating her pregnancy, Let Them Live offered her the most generous contract BI saw.
Like Tara, Olivia considered herself "pro-life." After learning she was pregnant, she signed a contract with Let Them Live. But then she had second thoughts.
Two of Olivia's three kids have special needs, and she takes care of her disabled mother. Her initial contract with Let Them Live didn't include money for childcare or emergency savings, and the $8,000 it offered for a new vehicle wouldn't cover a reliable car to fit four children. "I did not want to put another child through any unnecessary pain and hardship," she said.
When Olivia told the group she'd changed her mind and would be traveling out of state for an abortion, Let Them Live seemed to throw everything it had at her — first, bombarding her with messages urging her not to go through with it, and then agreeing to far more generous terms of support.
Olivia said she had undergone dilation, the first part of the abortion, and was resting in her hotel room when texts started arriving from as many as 20 people saying they were with Let Them Live, beseeching her not to go through with the procedure. Someone claiming to be a priest even sent pictures of bloody fetuses.
"It was very confusing and heartbreaking," she told BI.
Olivia said she asked to be left alone, but the messages kept coming. At the hospital later, as she was being prepared for the second part of the procedure, Olivia again had second thoughts. She told Let Them Live what support she felt she needed to raise a fourth child.
"They accepted my terms almost immediately when they knew I was waiting to go back for surgery," she said. Olivia said she canceled the procedure on the spot.
Olivia's second contract promised her financial assistance worth more than $54,000. This time, it included $25,000 for a vehicle and additional money for car insurance, $10,000 for childcare, a $5,000 Visa gift card, gift cards for food and gas, and a one-time $2,000 expense, which she planned to use to take her kids on vacation.
Olivia carried the pregnancy to term and gave birth to a baby boy in May 2022.
But she never received the $5,000 Visa gift card or the $10,000 for childcare. Olivia was incensed. At one point, her counselor went silent for two months, only to reappear saying she had changed her phone number.
"The reality is, providing you the funds you are demanding would mean that other Moms get evicted from their apartments or have their car repossessed or can't afford to buy groceries this week," the counselor told Olivia. "I hope you understand that."
Eventually, Let Them Live sent Olivia a letter ending her financial support. Her counselor also pointed out that Olivia "had not been pregnant for several months now" as a reason for why she could do without the support.
"Yeah, I'm not pregnant. I have a baby," Olivia told BI. "It's even harder now. Are you guys clueless?"
Nathan Berning said Olivia's childcare funding was cut because she "did not have any flexibility" about where the payments would be sent, adding that "nobody was actually comfortable interacting with her."
He confirmed "multiple staff members" had contacted Olivia as she prepared for an abortion because they believed she was undecided. "If we feel like there's still a chance she wants our help, then we have to use every opportunity to show her we are there to help," he said.
"We did save her baby from abortion," he added.
Berning said the group would send Olivia the $5,000 Visa card it promised in her contract.
Berning acknowledged multiple mistakes on the group's part, saying "there's definitely some things that were not handled as well as they could have been."
Still, the group considers a given case a success if an abortion is avoided, even if there were "little examples" of "things not going the way that they should," he said.
"All these moms that you're bringing to our attention, they all have babies that they are holding in their arms now because of us," he said.
When BI requested to be put in touch with women who might have had a more positive experience with Let Them Live, the group provided six names. Only one, who turned out to be a paid staff member of Let Them Live, replied. She said the organization was "heaven sent" and had given her everything it promised "and then some."
'What is there to say?'
In May, Let Them Live hosted a black-tie fundraiser at a Hard Rock hotel in Florida. In its invitation, it said it was "spreading awareness of the real solution we are now taking to scale," which "has the potential to vastly reduce the abortion numbers." Guests included Ben Carson.
Nathan told BI the group was looking into the cases of the women who had their gift cards cut and said the group is auditing its finances. "We have a better process to ensure that something like that doesn't happen again," he said.
He also said the group had introduced a new system called ALICE — short for "Abortion Likelihood Indicator, Calculator & Evaluator" — this summer to evaluate women's needs more effectively. This new system is intended to measure the likelihood a woman will have an abortion, with a score of 100 indicating it's most likely.
But what about Let Them Live's assertion that it's in the business of empowering women?
Systems like the ALICE evaluator are telling, said Ziegler, the abortion historian. "It just goes to show you that the main purpose, again, is to focus on the fetus and the unborn child and not the woman or other people in her life, because someone who may be less likely to have an abortion may have a much harder road in the future for themselves and their families if they don't have the abortion."
"So the care for women is more of a means to an end than an end in itself," she added.
As for the women who say they were misled by Let Them Live, a sense of betrayal still lingers.
Tara became pregnant again in 2022 and had an abortion. If she had "been able to trust" Let Them Live to support her during the pregnancy, she might have reconsidered, she said
"This organization is bad for everyone involved," she told BI. "It's bad for the pro-life movement. It's bad for mothers, children, and families."
If you have a story to tell about Let Them Live or the abortion debate, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Reporting: Bethany Dawson, Louise Ridley, Sarah Posner
Editing: Edith Honan
Visuals: Deena So'Oteh, Rebecca Zisser, Isabel Fernandez-Pujol
Copyediting: Jonann Brady
Fact-checking: Jeanette Beebe
Read the original article on Business Insider