WASHINGTON—Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), one of the leading pro-life advocates in the House of Representatives, has introduced legislation to provide federal assistance for abortion alternatives. This bill would replicate a highly successfully statewide program Pitts championed in Pennsylvania.

Known as the Women and Children's Resources Act, it will allocate $85 million annually to reimburse crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes, and adoption agencies. Reimbursable services would include pregnancy testing, health care and guidance, sexual abstinence education, and referrals for assistance in a variety of areas.

The bill prohibits any funds from being used to perform or make referrals for abortions. In addition, no contraceptive services, drugs, devices, or related advice can be dispensed.

Pitts, who served 14 years in the Pennsylvania House before entering Congress in 1997, was instrumental in shepherding a similar bill through the state Legislature in 1995. Today, that initiative is responsible for sustaining a network of 92 centers.

In Pennsylvania $3.1 million is made available annually to such centers through a program supervised by the Department of Public Welfare. The agency, in turn, selected a contractor to administer the program. The contractor, a non-profit known as Real Alternatives, then developed a system from existing crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes, and adoption agencies which act as subcontractors.

For a center to become a subcontractor and enter the network, it must meet rigid criteria, including disavowal of religious proselytizing. The centers, which are reimbursed at specified rates for the counseling and services they provide, include Church-affiliated groups such as Catholic Charities.

The Pennsylvania program, known as Project Women in Need, served more than 15,000 clients during its first two and a half years of operation. These clients are located in 42 counties, but television and yellow-page advertising has expanded the service area to 57 of the state's 67 counties.

In his first term as congressman, Pitts already has gained national recognition through his pro-life advocacy.

“We think, based on the experience in Pennsylvania in serving 92 different groups, this program will be in much demand all over the nation,” Pitts told the Register. He emphasizes that this concept is a compassionate approach that substantially aids both women in crisis and their children.

In a statement the congressman released on the legislation, he noted, “Instead of continuing to defend the pro-life cause from the fallacies of pro-choice rhetoric, the pro-life movement must take the offense.

With more crisis pregnancy centers in the United States than abortion clinics, pro-lifers should be able to mount a significant battle to change their face from suppressor of women's rights to one of compassion for all involved in the heartache of unwanted pregnancy.”

In his first term as congressman, Pitts already has gained national recognition through his pro-life advocacy and his appointment as head of the Values Action Team, a liaison effort between the House Republican leadership and social conservatives.

Earlier this year Pitts worked with national pro-life and pro-family groups in getting input on the abortion alternative legislation. Also participating has been the director of the Pennsylvania program, Kevin Bagatta, a Harrisburg, Pa., attorney.

The congressman held a news conference in Lancaster, Pa., which is part of his district, Sept. 30 to unveil the new law. Bagatta, appearing with him, said, “This is the day that our country followed the lead of Pennsylvania, who taught America how a compassionate society provides life affirming alternatives to abortion. This is what Pennsylvania has done. This is the right thing to do.”

Although he and his supporters are enthusiastic about bringing this Pennsylvania model to the nation, Pitts has no illusions about the challenge of enacting such legislation.

“I don't expect action this year,” he said. “It will be a long-term strategy. We have to wait to get a hearing and tell the Pennsylvania story.”

The bill will be reintroduced in the 106th Congress, which convenes in January, and which Pitts hopes will attract additional co-sponsors.

Meanwhile, Pitts remains active on several other pro-life fronts. He is the founder of the Congressional Life Forum, an informal monthly lecture series which features prominent pro-life advocates. Also involved in the forum are Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and James Barcia (D-Mich.).

Among those who have spoken to members of Congress and their staffs are Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Norma McCorvey, Steven Mosher of the Population Research Institute, and Karen Garver Santorum, wife of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and author of Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum.

The most recent guest was Harry Wu, a human rights advocate, who on Sept. 24 discussed China's population control program.

Some of the speakers have praised the value of such talks. Frederica Mathewes-Green, a prominent writer and pro-life advocate, said, “Congressman Pitts is doing a very important thing by providing this ongoing forum.”

“The abortion fight has lingered for so many years that everyone can get a little numb,” she said. “Those on the political front lines — members of Congress and their staffs — can get out of touch with new developments and approaches. By offering this forum, Congressman Pitts keeps the abortion issue alive and Hill workers informed.”

Another participant, Paul Swope of the Caring Foundation, said, “The Life Forum was extremely helpful in affording the opportunity to present our work to over 20 congressional offices and numerous pro-life organizations. Not only did this forum save enormous time, it also ensured that the same information was conveyed to all groups, and allowed for a sharing of questions and ideas among the various offices and organizations.”

In addition to these efforts, Pitts has introduced an amendment to the foreign aid appropriations bill which would transfer $100 million of population control funds to child survival efforts. He also is a co-sponsor of the Hyde-Oberstar Bill (HR 4006), which amends the Controlled Substances Act to curb physician-assisted suicides.

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.