WASHINGTON — In lieu of congressional defunding of Planned Parenthood, the Trump administration is continuing to broaden the opportunities for pro-life health clinics and organizations to compete for funding sources long dominated by Planned Parenthood.
The administration awarded the Obria Group a Title X grant, which Obria says will only fund natural family planning and sexual risk-avoidance education, to be distributed through five subgrantee partners: three affiliate Obria Medical Clinics and two faith-based federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) in California. The grant would bestow up to $5.1 million over the next three years.
“The grant was written to support our medical model, which is groundbreaking for our movement,” Kathleen Eaton Bravo, founder and CEO of the Obria Group, told the Register.
The Obria Group is the first pro-life organization to successfully apply as a main grant recipient for Title X funding under the latest rules from Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Bravo explained Obria had been unable to apply successfully for a Title X grant previously because their proposals would not fund hormonal contraception.
Title X is a federal program created in 1965 that gives out approximately $250 million in grants each year, subsidizing family-planning and preventative-health services, including contraception, for low-income families.
However, Bravo said HHS clarified rules in November that allowed the Obria Group to submit a grant proposal tailored to fulfilling two areas the Trump administration saw as underserved: natural family planning methods and sexual risk-avoidance (SRA) behavior training. This allowed them to apply a second time, and for this reason, she said, the grant succeeded.
A Title X fact sheet developed by Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), explained, “Sub-recipients not offering hormonal contraception must offer some service related to family planning (e.g., SRA education; natural family planning education; infertility services, etc.) and/or non-pregnancy related sexual-health medical services (STI testing/treatment; HIV screening; cervical/breast cancer screening).”
Bravo said there is a need for a “licensed accredited community clinic” offering life-affirming health care that complements other front-line pro-life witness, such as pregnancy-resource centers. The Obria approach is proactive: Comprehensive, life-affirming medical care is meant to help women have healthy lives and avoid behaviors that may lead to unplanned pregnancy or infertility. But if they do end up in pregnancy, they have an established relationship with Obria Medical Clinics that can provide the care and support resources they need to choose life.
Bravo said the Title X grant complements a $450,000 Title V grant awarded for the 2018 fiscal year to fund sexual risk-avoidance education in their affiliated Obria Medical Clinics.
Mauricio Leone, executive director of the Obria Group, told the Register that the Obria Group’s Title X grant focuses on natural family planning, sexual risk-avoidance education, pregnancy tests, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screenings.
Leone explained that to meet the Title X requirements, the Obria Group strategically partnered with local faith-based (evangelical and Catholic) federally qualified health centers that have their own pharmacies and provide contraceptives independently of any Title X funds. But in terms of the Obria grant, there is “no allocation in our Title X family-planning budget for contraceptive distribution,” and none of the subgrantees are required to dispense contraception.
The announcement of the Obria grant came on the heels of the announcement by HHS in February of a new “Protect-Life Rule” that prohibits Title X funds from being directed to abortion providers.
The new rule, which replaces previous regulations established during Bill Clinton’s presidency that allowed for health clinics that were co-located with abortion businesses to receive funds and also required Title X recipients to refer patients for abortions, mandates a physical and financial separation between a Title X funding recipient and a business that provides abortion.
The grant to Obria, building on the Protect-Life Rule by directing federal funding to a pro-life alternative to Planned Parenthood, provoked outrage from the abortion giant and its allies.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s political arm tweeted, “The Trump admin announced $5M in taxpayer money meant to provide for birth control & other reprocare ... to Obria, an anti-birth-control organization. This is their vision for the entire Title X program: a birth-control program that doesn’t offer birth control. #ProtectX.”
Other abortion advocates were similarly indignant. One headline on the website Jezebel stated, “This Christian, Anti-Abortion Clinic Is Rebranding as the New Planned Parenthood.” The Jezebel article noted that Obria Medical Clinics were likely what the Trump administration had in mind while rewriting Title X funding rules and stated they were “more likely to be eligible for federal grants as well as reimbursement from Medicaid and private insurance.”
Pro-life organizations, however, maintained the Trump administration was finally creating a level playing field.
“HHS used a fair and balanced review process to fund organizations who applied and met program standards,” Mallory Quigley, SBA List vice president of communications, told the Register. “It shouldn’t be surprising that as some groups threaten to pull out of the program, new applicants might apply. It’s encouraging to see groups like Obria, which offers comprehensive, quality health care to low-income women and families in California, apply and qualify.”
Greg Schleppenbach, the associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, told the Register that he viewed the participation of pro-life, pro-family entities in the Title X program under the Trump administration as a “very positive development.”
Schleppenbach said the Title X program originally envisioned a much broader array of services than artificial contraception, and up to now, the entities in the program had not been “doing much of anything” to fulfill that vision.
The new Title X regulations, he said, helpfully removed the abortion-referral requirement that was a key obstacle to pro-life participation, and the administration has signaled clearly that it wants to give pro-life groups a seat at the table and provide those missing fertility-based methods.
“These are healthier life-affirming ways of founding one’s family, and by making sure that entities that provide these ethical forms of planning one’s family have a seat at the table, or an opportunity to get funding, I think this administration should be commended for that effort.”
An HHS spokesperson told the Register that all applicants are equally treated.
“Any applicant is eligible to apply and be funded if they submit a quality application that is responsive to Title X requirements,” the HHS spokesperson said.
HHS said successful grants have to comply with the regulations and statutes governing the Title X program, compliance with statutory requirements, cannot be used in programs where abortion is a family-planning method, and “a broad range of family-planning methods must be provided, which would include hormonal contraception.”
“If an organization offers only a single method of family planning, it may participate as part of a project as long as the entire project offers a broad range of family-planning services,” the HHS spokesperson stated.
Melanie Israel, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation, said the Trump administration has been inviting pro-life groups to give low-income people a choice that “meets their needs and reflects their values.”
“Not everyone wants to go to Planned Parenthood to get an IUD [intrauterine device],” she said.
“Ultimately what it comes down to is the administration keeps interpreting the ‘family planning’ to be broader than contraception,” Israel said. “They’re trying to fill a gap in many ways.”
Israel said making a pro-life alternative competitive to Planned Parenthood also requires private support. Last year Planned Parenthood raked in $630 million in private contributions that ranged from small donors to big celebrities.
But she expected that the endorsement of the administration would serve as confirmation of the value and need for this life-affirming alternative approach to Planned Parenthood and spur others to expand such work.
She said, “They’re definitively recognizing that Americans should have choices.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.