TAMPA, Fla. — Ana Hidalgo Stooks remembers the day when she looked into another mother’s eyes and realized she made the right call to expand her pregnancy-resource center and offer women the comprehensive, life-affirming services they are not getting at Planned Parenthood.

“She was telling me over and over, ‘I’m just going to have an abortion,’” Stooks, the executive director of Guiding Star Tampa in Florida, told the Register. “This was a woman who you would never think of as abortion-minded or abortion-vulnerable.”

She was very involved at the pro-life center, attending their new relationship classes, but she had a newborn baby and was shocked to learn she was pregnant again.

Thankfully, Stooks’ Life Choices Women’s Care, offering Guiding Star’s “holistic vision” for women’s fertility care, allowed this woman and her husband a welcoming space to discuss the pregnancy, choose life and get the care they needed. 

“I keep thinking to myself that if we hadn’t been there throughout the first pregnancy and now the second, she would have been in line to get an abortion,” Stooks said. Today, the woman and her husband are “so proud of their little boy.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 1.06 million women obtained abortions in 2011, with 89% of abortions happening in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and one-third of them happening in the first six weeks. Approximately 60% are women who have already had one baby. Planned Parenthood, which accounts for 40% of the abortion market, reported 2.7 million clients in 2014 accessing services, including STD tests, contraception and well-woman care, with up to 12% of clients obtaining abortion services.

“That’s where, as a pregnancy-center movement, we have got to do more than just pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to save that baby,” Stooks said. “We’ve got to build a relationship with that woman, that husband, that significant other, and become a community where they can come to throughout their fertile years.”

Guiding Star’s first center is the Tampa location, but the company is in the process of adding more providers, according to Leah Jacobson, the Catholic founder and president of the Guiding Star Project. The organization has a flexible model for pregnancy-resource centers to become a national, affiliated alternative to Planned Parenthood.

“We’re not trying to replace [pregnancy-resource centers], but expand them,” she said. “We want to increase all the services available to women in one convenient location.”

The idea, Jacobson explained, is that a woman can go to a Guiding Star center and find the services she needs for her fertile years under one roof: well-woman care, OB/GYN and birthing services, pregnancy-support services, natural family planning education and fertility care, pharmacy needs, counseling, grief support, adoption resources and even spiritual care with a chapel. Having all the services from vetted partners in a single building owned by Guiding Star, Jacobson pointed out, eliminates gaps between a positive pregnancy test and a doctor’s appointment. It also allows women to get help with lactation or pregnancy difficulties that may make them wary of having another baby.

“Women also need to have a space to hang out,” she said, adding that the center provides a designated place for women to drop their children off for supervised child care for several hours as well as a lounge to enjoy coffee and community.

 

Rethinking Pregnancy Centers

Newly published market research from the Charlotte Lozier Institute suggests an urgency to rethink the pro-life model. The pro-life research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List found in surveys conducted in 2014 that only 12% of the clients at the nation’s 2,500 pregnancy-help centers are actually abortion-minded women, while approximately half of all clients show risk factors that would make them “abortion-vulnerable.” The institute recommended adding more comprehensive services, particularly medical services. Its survey showed a combined 98% of women and 93% of men rated medical care from a doctor or nurse as the most or second-most important service a pregnancy-help center could provide.

“People want a center that is medical and has services that are affordable,” said Chuck Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

Both the Guiding Star Project and the Obria Foundation are emerging nonprofit organizations in full accord with the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life and dignity of the human person that offer pregnancy centers an opportunity to affiliate around their national brands and models for providing women — and men — low-cost, wrap-around services during their fertile years.

“We have to meet women where they are at,” said Kathleen Eaton Bravo, the Catholic founder of the California-based Obria Medical Clinics (formerly BirthChoice pregnancy-resource centers), which are seeking to expand in the state and nationwide. Bravo said the road to abortion for many women begins with going to Planned Parenthood seeking basic, low-cost medical services. Her own abortion experience as a young woman decades ago began that same way.

“We can change the culture one woman at a time,” she said. “We need them to develop a relationship with us, rather than Planned Parenthood.”

Bravo said her own organization’s research revealed the need to expand services and embrace a model that would provide women a continuum of medical care and services before, during and well after pregnancy, offer basic medical services to men as well, and provide them both with programs to help get their lives back on track. Before going medical, Bravo said they saw under 500 clients a year and saved four babies and their parents from abortion. After the transition to a medical model, they began seeing 9,000 clients a year on average, with 850 babies saved — a metric Obria determines by verified births — in 2014.

As the scandal surrounding Planned Parenthood’s videos intensifies, the organization continues to defend itself (and its access to government funding) by pointing out that its 700 clinics across the country offer women low-cost basic medical services.

But Abby Johnson, a Catholic and former Planned Parenthood facility director, told the Register that the nation’s approximately 10,000 federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) could absorb clients from any Planned Parenthood closures. However, she said these health centers are “not the whole package” women need, because they have material, physical and emotional needs that only pro-life medical centers can provide comprehensively.

Neither Obria nor Guiding Star qualify for the FQHC grants due to federal rules that require providers to refer or provide “voluntary family planning” services. Obria and Guiding Star’s providers do not prescribe or refer for contraception; both abide fully by Catholic teaching on sexual ethics and fertility.

“One of the really important things about pro-life medical centers is they can help women change their behavior,” said Johnson, a member of the board of the Guiding Star Project.

Changing One Woman at a Time

Kristi Poledouris was a single mother, who also had previous abortions, when her life changed in 2007 by stepping into an Obria (at the time BirthChoice) clinic in southern California. As she wavered between keeping her baby or aborting her, the sustained relationship she had with Obria’s patient advocate and the clinic’s personal, non-judgmental touch helped her feel free to make her own decision to keep her daughter.  

“My only other experience was Planned Parenthood, where you’re treated like a number. It was very factory-like, in and out, and nobody calls you or wants to know what happened to you,” she said. “To be at a pro-life clinic, you definitely feel like you’re walking into a warm glow. They make you feel loved, and it’s kind of weird how showing love and compassion can change your heart like that.”

The Obria Foundation operates on a franchise model, similar to Planned Parenthood or McDonald’s. Obria helps a pregnancy-resource center step-by-step become an Obria Medical Clinic, with expanded and fully accredited medical services (including pregnancy tests, STD treatment, RU-486 reversal, ultrasounds, prenatal care, cancer screening, and natural family planning instruction), comprehensive programs both before and continuing five years after birth, and Obria’s marketing and technology support.

“We have a lot of great fervor and excitement,” said Bravo, adding that the organization is in discussion with 32 different groups across the country about affiliating as Obria clinics.

‘Untapped Potential’

National affiliation, with consistent services and strong branding, is one of the key components of the Guiding Star Project and Obria Foundation’s centers. New research supports their view that these proactive models will help them to better reach those clients most likely to go to Planned Parenthood.

The Charlotte Lozier Institute’s new market research delves into the reasons why few abortion-minded women are heading into pregnancy-help centers, although the research found very high percentages of women and men who thought pregnancy-help centers were necessary, desirable and viewed them favorably.

“The mission is recognized, but the entities are not,” Donovan said.

Brand recognition and community awareness are two major problems. The Charlotte Lozier survey found that while pregnancy-help centers were better liked than Planned Parenthood, only 46% of women and 31% of men knew of one in their area.

The two major pregnancy-resource associations, Heartbeat International and Care Net, were recognizable to only a very low percentage. Options Line, the 24/7 pregnancy-center referral hotline, was unknown to 92% of women and 94% of men.

In contrast, Planned Parenthood’s brand was recognized by 93% of respondents.

When it came to having confidence in a pregnancy-resource center’s services, the Charlotte Lozier Institute found 77% of women and 71% of men thought national affiliation or branding was “very” or “fairly” important. Professional-sounding names also appealed equally to those identifying themselves as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” Names that evoked caring rated higher with respondents who identified themselves as pro-life, while 95% did not like the name “crisis-pregnancy center.”

“The main takeaway is that pregnancy centers have untapped potential,” Donovan said.

Smartphone Game Changer

However, Bravo said the smartphone has radically changed the landscape for both the abortion industry and pregnancy-resource centers. Bravo said there are 10,000 searches a day for “abortion pill,” and it takes just 15 seconds between a search and connecting with Planned Parenthood on live chat.

The future of abortion, Bravo said, is telemedicine, where Planned Parenthood writes an RU-486 prescription that will allow women and girls to have a first-trimester abortion in their own homes.

Bravo said Obria is developing its own telemedicine program (with a nurse available 24/7) and creating a comprehensive mobile-friendly presence, so that women will find Obria’s services, including RU-486 reversals, when they search from a smartphone or tablet.

Google’s changes in April 2015 to new search algorithms are geared to reward mobile-friendly websites, which drastically reduces the visibility of pregnancy-resource centers operating older websites but favors mobile-friendly sites such as those run by Obria, Guiding Star or Planned Parenthood.

Poledouris, who is now married and volunteers as a patient advocate for Obria, noted that when she first found BirthChoice it was word-of-mouth information.

“Now, a lot the people who find us say [it was by] Internet search,” she said.

Stooks said being searchable on mobile devices is also upending the previous logic of putting a pregnancy center across from Planned Parenthood in a rough neighborhood. When her pregnancy center became Guiding Star Tampa, it relocated to a beautiful building in a higher-income area of Tampa.

“The Millennial woman is very tech-savvy,” she said. “If she finds [a pregnancy center] is in a bad part of town, she’s not going to want to go there.”

Funding and Unity

While Obria and Guiding Star both provide bold visions for providing care to women that draws them away from Planned Parenthood, their expansion and success depends on the pro-life movement’s will — and money.

Financial backers are beginning to emerge. Michael Guarino, vice president of Tampa Bay Legatus, told the Register his financial investment in Guiding Star Tampa was based on wanting Life Choices Women’s Care to become “part of a national movement to make access to women’s health [care] affordable and accessible,” with a brand recognized for “protecting life from womb to the tomb” and putting women’s interests, “and not the business, first.”

 Johnson said pregnancy centers that move to a nationally affiliated model with medical services can provide much more for women than Planned Parenthood and ultimately demonstrate the best of the pro-life movement’s care for women and their children.

“This is not just about telling women, ‘Don’t have an abortion.’ It’s about being there for them — the Gospel of accompaniment Pope Francis talks about,” she said. “That is what we should be doing in the pro-life movement: accompanying these women on their journey, so they can make better decisions in their lives; and if they do have an unplanned pregnancy, we accompany them on that journey, so they can make better decisions after their baby is born.” 

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.