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Part of the big compromise: An HHS pregnancy assistance fund quietly activates thanks to controversial health-care legislation.
BY MONTA HERNON
WASHINGTON — A Heath and Human Services Department grant of $24 million for the support of pregnant and parenting teens and women is a “huge victory,” said Feminists for Life.
The department announced the grants Sept. 28 to 17 states and 13 American Indian tribes.
The money, part of the Pregnancy Assistance Fund created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, can be used for three specific purposes: to help institutions of higher education develop and provide access to programs for pregnant and parenting students; to help high schools and community service centers offer similar support to pregnant and parenting teens, and to make more and better services available to pregnant women who are victims of violence.
Feminists for Life, which works to raise awareness about the lack of pregnancy and parenting resources on college campuses, called the grants a “huge victory for women and an enormous victory for student parents who have been struggling.”
“We have found that because colleges and universities have not focused on resources, overwhelmingly, they have referred women to centers that would perform abortion. ... There is [often] no one place to go [for information] if you are pregnant and want to stay in school. Women have abortions rather than drop out and have a baby,” Feminists for Life’s president, Serrin Foster, said, stressing that “education should not cause women to want to terminate a pregnancy.”
Feminists for Life hosts Pregnancy Resource Forums on college campuses in part to help facilitate communication about pregnancy resources. Georgetown University served as the test site about 14 years ago and has since made great strides in becoming a supportive environment for its pregnant and parenting students. During this year’s annual forum, Foster said, “We had children playing on the floor while the students decided what can be done better.”
Often progress is made from the ground up. Georgetown University Right to Life honored Students for Life of St. Louis University, for example, in 2007, with the Evangelium Vitae award, recognizing their “leadership and excellence in college pro-life activities. The St. Louis group grew the $1,000 honorarium into a $50,000 fund through a variety of fundraising efforts. The group has used $5,000 to date to help 12 pregnant or parenting students with incidentals like buying books.
“We have started getting the administration’s attention and are trying to make [our efforts] more a part of SLU and not just Students for Life,” Rose Daly, the organization’s president, said, noting that their goal is on-campus child care and housing options.
These types of endeavors, of course, are expensive. Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, in conjunction with an organization called Room at the Inn, is building a residential facility for pregnant and parenting students that will cost close to $3 million, raised via a capital campaign.
But, in the end, if campus environments are changed, fewer women will feel abortion is their only option, Foster said.
“We say Yes to life in practical ways that answer the unmet needs of women. ... We want to get ahead of the curve so that no woman considers having an abortion.” The grants, she added, are a way for both sides of the abortion debate to move forward in agreement about women-centered solutions.
In fact, HHS has billed the program as an affirmation of a pledge President Obama made during his 2009 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. He talked about finding common ground and pledged to work toward reducing unintended pregnancies, promoting adoption, and providing support for pregnant women.
But Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, pointed out that the Pregnancy Assistance Fund was not a White House initiative. “[They just] didn’t object. It provided some useful window dressing to cover up all the things [pro-life groups] were objecting to.”
National Right to Life was among those “extremely opposed” to the final version of the health-care reform bill. “It does not contain safeguards to prevent a sweeping pro-abortion effect in the future. Unless Congress comes back and corrects this, we can end up in five or 10 years down the road with the federal government subsidizing abortion on a massive scale,” Johnson said.
Part of the reason is that the legislation calls for a variety of programs that will kick in over a period of years. While the Pregnancy Assistance Fund includes specific requirements regarding the permissible use of the money, others contain open-ended language.
National Right to Life and other pro-life groups raised a battle flag over the summer regarding the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, highlighting language in proposals for implementation submitted by three states that would have led to the funding of “virtually all abortions,” Johnson said.
Public scrutiny led the administration to issue a regulation specifying that the federal funds for what is also known as the high-risk pool program could not be used for elective abortions. Yet, a separate statement clarified that this policy should not be used as a precedent for other programs, Johnson said.
“If states comply with what Congress wrote in particular parts of the bill [like the Pregnancy Assistance Fund], there shouldn’t be a problem,” Johnson said. “[But, you] can’t guarantee there won’t be someone who misuses it.”
For example, on the HHS Web page listing the 2010 projects provided for under the Pregnancy Assistance Fund, the California Department of Public Health says it will use the money in part to expand the state’s Adolescent Family Life Program (AFLP). The Family Research Council discovered that the AFLP lists Planned Parenthood on its allocation table for fiscal year 2010-2011.
“Including components involving family planning or awarding subgrants to groups such as Planned Parenthood is not the spirit of the authorizing language. The grants are intended to help pregnant women care for their children; funding the largest abortion provider in the U.S. is not the way to do this,” Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the FRC said.
Carrie Earll, spokeswoman for Focus on the Family, said that while the fund’s stated purpose — supporting pregnant teens and women — is a “good idea,” there are not enough safeguards to prevent the money from going to groups that promote or commit abortion.
“It has potential. That is why I don’t mean to cast a pall over it here,” Earll said. “The state level is a good place to make sure money gets to the people who really need it, but that [also] will be something to watch.”
Register correspondent Monta Hernon writes from La Grange Park, Illinois.