ST. PAUL, Minn. — Former broadcast journalist Maria Vitale used to believe what many abortion advocates said about pregnancy-resource centers, that they are “deceptive” and “unprofessional.”

“I had bought the lie that alternatives to abortion centers were ‘fake abortion clinics,’ violating standard practices of truth in advertising,” said Vitale.

It was only after working as a volunteer with Birthright that she became aware of their real work and value. “It became apparent to me that the pro-life movement really is a movement of love,” said Vitale.

It has been 41 years since the establishment of North America’s first pregnancy-resource center. Today, more than 2,300 centers carry out the work of caring for abortion-minded women, men and their children. Over the past three decades, crisis-pregnancy centers, or pregnancy-resource centers, have undergone significant changes, affiliating with national networks, implementing standards, and moving toward a medical model of practice that offer services such as testing for sexually transmitted diseases and ultrasound.

“Over my 25 years in crisis-pregnancy center work, there has been an increase in quality and the scope of services offered,” said Pat Foley, director of the Wakota Life Care Center in West St. Paul, Minn. “Most are offering more medical services, which has brought a professionalism into CPCs that wasn’t there before.”

According to “A Passion to Serve, A Vision for Life,” a recent pregnancy-resource center report on the movement as a whole published by the Family Research Council, centers assist 5,500 people in the U.S. every day and 1.9 million annually. The average center sees between 300 and 350 people each year, but some, such as Lakeshore Pregnancy Center in Western Michigan, see more than 5,000 clients annually.

The backbone of such work is volunteers: 29 of every 30 people engaged in pregnancy-center work are volunteers. Affiliates of the pregnancy resource centers networks Care Net and Heartbeat International utilize the services of more than 40,000 volunteers annually.

One center director spoke of the need for centers to adjust their services to meet the changing times and attitudes.

Offering More Services

“We need centers that can meet the needs of abortion-minded women,” said Chris Gustafson, director of the Lakes Life Care Center in Forest Lake, Minn. “The majority of women are abortion-minded. They don’t consider their pregnancy a crisis; it’s a problem. We’re fishing for women who want to have abortions, rather than women who find themselves in crisis.”

Originally, the primary service offered by many pregnancy-resource centers was free pregnancy tests. While that continues, as more centers move to a medical model, many are offering services that weren’t available previously, such as ultrasound, abstinence education and STD testing.

There has been a fivefold increase in Care Net-affiliated centers offering STD testing since 2003.

Between 2003 and 2006, the number of centers affiliated with Care Net that provide ultrasound has more than tripled. Statistics show that a very high percentage of abortion-minded women who are shown an ultrasound of their unborn child will choose life.

Through efforts by such organizations as the Knights of Columbus and Focus on the Family’s Option Ultrasound Project, ultrasound equipment is being made available to centers at minimal or no cost. In addition, organizations such as National Institute of Family and Life Advocates exist to help centers desiring to make the transition to the medical model of service.

Implementing Standards

Years ago, there was tremendous diversity among pregnancy-resource centers in terms of how they operated. Some were set up as clinics, others were mom-and-pop centers operating out of a home.

Today, the majority of centers have adopted “Our Commitment of Care,” an ethical code of practice for life-affirming pregnancy-resource centers and medical clinics that has been endorsed by a coalition of national pregnancy-resource centers. Among the commitments they make: treating clients with kindness and compassion, honesty, truthful advertising and proper training for staff and volunteers.

Some states, such as Minnesota and Pennsylvania, offer some public funding for pregnancy-resource center services. Pennsylvania’s Real Alternatives reimburses participating crisis pregnancy centers for their work with clients. In exchange, the centers promise to abide by a set of standards and a scope of services.

For example, Pennsylvania’s Real Alternatives ensures that the results of pregnancy tests are conveyed to clients in a quick manner so as not to prolong the anxiety of the client.

“So much for the abortion industry’s claim that pregnancy-resource centers are in the coercion business,” said Vitale.

“Part of our job is to envision centers and provide the support that they need to reach those levels,” said Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International. “Affiliating with a national network can help centers to get there.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.

10 Pregnancy-Resource Center Best Practices

Over the years, pregnancy-resource centers have found that specific practices can raise the level of professionalism. Various pregnancy-resource center directors interviewed for this story provided their ideas for “best practices” that could be adopted by other centers. The list was compiled by the Register.

1. Affiliate with one of the national networks.

2. Utilize a board of directors to whom the executive director is accountable.

3. Employ a couple of high-quality, key paid staff.

4. Implement standards such as “Commitment of Care.”

5. Transition to the medical model.

6. Location of center should be both visible and accessible, with clear, consistent hours of operation.

7. Remain focused on the center’s primary mission.

8. Have a conflict-resolution policy in place.

9. Meticulous record keeping.

10. Adequate training for counselors and volunteers.