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Pro-woman, Pro-life: Toward holistic care

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Five years ago, in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Dede Chism and her daughter Abby Sinnett finished another medical mission trip. They had seen hundreds of women come to them for care; they had heard each woman’s story of pain and search for healing. But reflecting on each woman’s face, Abby began to see other faces: the faces of thousands of women back home in the U.S. who were in need of loving holistic care, but had no one to provide it to them.

Mother and daughter talked and prayed about it. Chism told Angelus News that at a certain point, her daughter just turned to her and said, “Mom, I feel like the Holy Spirit is saying we need to carry this home, because everyone is broken at home.”

In 2014, Chism and Sinnett took that insight and founded Bella Natural Women’s Care in Denver, Colorado. Today, this pro-life holistic health center sees 2,600 patients a year in its spa-like offices, from women who cannot pay to the corporate executive who volunteers to pay a little extra, so that one more woman in need can get the “love and options” she needs from Bella.

Bella offers full comprehensive OB/GYN services that care for women through pregnancy and postpartum. It also provides fertility care, infertility treatment with NaPro technology and family medicine that serves both children and the elderly as well.

Chism said they wanted to make sure each woman in a crisis pregnancy knew that they would be cared for, even after the baby was born. Bella’s partnership with Catholic Charities helps women in need with the wrap-around social services and support they need to have their babies with confidence, such as food, housing, early education and immigration help. Chism said they are showing women that they do have options with their pregnancy — and that abortion offers them a false choice.

More than 40 years after Roe vs. Wade, Bella is part of a new pro-life movement emerging on the national stage that offers women and families new models of professional and holistic pro-life care. The new models aim to serve women (and even men) not just in moments of crisis, but at all ages and life conditions, caring for and healing the whole person.

Bella Women’s Care, Obria Medical Clinics, Gianna Centers for Women, Stanton Health Care and the Guiding Star Project are examples of the new models that could allow the pro-life movement to provide alternatives to Planned Parenthood at a time when Congress is looking to remove federal funding from the nation’s largest abortion provider. Each model has unique features, but they all share an extensive commitment to women and their families, and a recognition that having a strong, trusted brand in health care is essential to break out and compete in an area long dominated by Planned Parenthood.

Obria Medical Clinics, which has eight clinics based in Southern California and is expanding nationally, began as Birth Choice pregnancy resource centers, before making the transition to a medical model in 2015 with the “Obria” brand. Obria pursues a two-pronged approach to health care, with professional community health clinics alongside a telemedicine model that connects patients to a live nurse. Working with groups in 14 states, Obria offers a structured brand and a comprehensive set of services at its clinics: primary care, prenatal care, STI testing and treatment, ultrasounds and abortion-pill reversals, among others.

“It’s an opportunity for the first time for the pro-life movement to become a medical model and reach millennials with health care who are searching for answers, searching for truth,” Kathleen Eaton Bravo, the founder of Obria Medical Clinics and CEO of the Obria Foundation, told Angelus News. Bravo said her clinics have been able to successfully compete against Planned Parenthood, because youths today are looking for “something better,” which Obria can provide.

“We need to educate them with medical information and empower them to make informed decisions,” she said. “I believe that is the key and core of the new pro-life movement.”

Obria has created a template that existing pregnancy resource centers can adopt to expand their services and become affiliates. The process can take more than a year, in order to ensure adherence to the professional standards that Obria has set. The result, though, Bravo said, is a place that has earned recognition and trust in the community it serves. 

“If we don’t unify and raise ourselves up to provide pro-life medical care, we’re not going to survive and thrive,” said Bravo.

Serving women’s needs

The Guiding Star Project is another organization moving toward creating a stronger, more unified brand for pro-life care. With five affiliates by the end of 2016, and hoping to double that number by the end of 2017, Guiding Star hopes to expand its model throughout the country while providing flexibility for pregnancy resource centers to best serve their local communities.

“Our centers really need to meet the needs of mind, body and spirit,” Leah Jacobson, founder and CEO of the Guiding Star Project, told Angelus News. Jacobson explained that Guiding Star centers are built around pregnancy resource centers, and have providers that offer services in each of the following four areas: fertility and natural family planning, pregnancy and gestation support, lactation and postpartum care and family life support.

Jacobson said they have start-up guides for pregnancy centers, fertility care centers and medical practices looking to expand their services by converting into Guiding Star Centers.

“We can start with any one of these to expand out in any direction for a Guiding Star Center,” she added. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which provides research for the abortion industry, 59 percent of women seeking abortions in 2014 already had a child and 75 percent were either poor or low income. Most women also cited existing responsibilities to others, inability to afford another child and fears that they would no longer be able to work, go to school or care for their dependents as their top reasons for seeking abortions.

Jacobson said she understands those fears. As a pregnant and parenting college student, she discovered that many social structures were unfriendly to her needs. She wants Guiding Star centers to walk with a woman through all of her concerns and help carry her child with confidence. A Guiding Star center can be a mother’s one-stop shop: her kids can play in their supervised child care center, while she fulfills her various errands, such as an OB-GYN appointment, getting materials from the pregnancy resource center, meeting a lactation consultant or just taking some needed time for herself.

“We’re much bigger than just a crisis pregnancy model, and much bigger than just a medical model,” she said. “We’re both.”

Research-confirmed approach

While the nation’s approximately 3,000 pregnancy resource centers have offered a limited amount of care and material support for women, typically in a crisis situation, the current push to provide comprehensive medical care for women in a professional setting recognizes that the pro-life movement can engage far more women, and transform far more lives, by meeting a demand for basic health services and building trusted relationships.

Market research published in July 2015 by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, which conducts research on life issues, confirmed that 98 percent of women and 93 percent of men rated medical care from a doctor or nurse as the most or second-most important service a pregnancy help center could provide.

The institute also confirmed the importance of having a trusted, professional-sounding and well-known brand: 77 percent of women and 71 percent of men thought national affiliation or branding was “very” or “fairly” important. Survey data found that while pregnancy help centers were better liked than Planned Parenthood, only 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men knew of one in their area.

The concept behind brand-recognized pro-life health centers recognizes that Planned Parenthood’s success is built on its widespread brand recognition, its ubiquity and range of basic health services — which include a range of STI/STD testing and treatments, cancer screening and prevention services, family planning services (including artificial birth control), sexual education and pregnancy testing — as well as abortion. Some clinics offer primary care, but Planned Parenthood’s own figures show very little services in the way of adoption referral and prenatal care. Planned Parenthood’s client relationships are built through its health services, and up to 13 percent of its clients will return for abortion. According to its 2014-2015 annual report, Planned Parenthood’s 661 centers saw 2.5 million clients that fiscal year for health services, including for 323,999 abortions.

Obria’s Bravo explained that every woman (or man) who steps into an Obria clinic gets their life-affirming comprehensive services — no abortion or contraception — and programs that build up lives and healthy relationships. And these patients develop a relationship with them, and not Planned Parenthood; those women and men will either go to or recommend Obria, not Planned Parenthood, because they have received care where their dignity is respected and they are loved for the persons they are.

Times are changing

Behind these new pro-life models is a realization that the abortion industry has changed and taken advantage of new technology, and the pregnancy resource center model on its own is no longer the most effective mechanism to reach abortion-vulnerable women.

Across the country, at-home RU-486 abortions are rising, and accounted for 43 percent of total abortions performed through Planned Parenthood, according to a recent report from Reuters.

The data available suggests that medical “at home” abortions will only continue to rise. A recent change in guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration allows a medical abortion to be prescribed up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy.

According to Guttmacher, 91 percent of abortions occur within the first 13 weeks, with 65.8 percent occurring within the first eight weeks. In Scandinavian countries, RU-486 medical abortions are the norm: RU-486 accounts for 96 percent of abortions in Finland, 91 percent in Sweden and 86 percent in Norway.

Bravo said the pro-life movement has to adapt to the new technology-driven market realities. Planned Parenthood is forging ahead with dispensing RU-486 via telemedicine, because it is far more profitable than paying abortion surgeons and bypasses pro-life activists outside their clinics. Obria developed its own telemedicine and online presence to reach teenagers and young adults who use their smartphones for information on contraception and abortion.

“We need to be there, impacting them on their smartphone,” Bravo said.

Overall, the comprehensive pro-life health centers have reported an exponential increase in clients — and far more lives saved — than they could as just a pregnancy resource center.

Bella’s Chism explained that Bella’s partnership with two Catholic Charities pregnancy resource centers allowed them to reach far more women. She said the center in North Denver went from seeing a handful of patients per week to 20-25 people per week, while the center in Lafayette went from seeing 1-2 women a week to 6-9 patients per day.

Demand for effective outreach

As Congress takes aim at removing federal funding from Planned Parenthood clinics due to its abortion services, some pro-life leaders have cautioned that the movement cannot simply rely on the nation’s network of federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) as an alternative. While FQHCs do not perform abortions, they provide clients the full range of artificial contraception, and can refer clients to abortion providers. Only pro-life health centers have the capacity to break the cycle of abortion, and change lives or culture by offering patients morally sound, life-affirming health care.

“Medical centers like this empower women to do what they often naturally want to do, which is to carry and care for their children,” Deirdre McQuade, assistant director of communications for the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Angelus News. She added that pro-life health centers, with their comprehensive approach, witness to how the pro-life movement “really cares about the ongoing well-being of women and their families.”

Planned Parenthood also has competitors waiting to replace it, should the abortion giant fall. Carafem, for example, only provides RU-486 abortions and contraception, and its model aims to provide clients a comfortable, spa-like setting — not a doctor’s office like Planned Parenthood. So far, it has two locations in Atlanta and outside Washington, D.C., but is expanding. The for-profit Family Planning Associates has also been copying more of Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services, in order to compete with its chief rival in California.

The new models of pro-life health care, however, can extend the loving, life-changing mission of pregnancy resource centers with holistic care, if they get needed private investment to steadily expand.

“We as a Christian community should come together and do better for women,” Kathleen Buckley Domingo, associate director at the Office of Life, Justice, and Peace in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told Angelus News. She said the pro-life health center’s “holistic view of health care” is what the Church is looking for today.

“Rather than just being an alternative to Planned Parenthood, we have the opportunity to create health care facilities that are beautiful and inviting while providing quality women’s health care that is different from the ground up,” she said. Domingo added that the pro-life movement’s seriousness of purpose is demonstrated in “treating every woman with dignity, and walking with her not only at the time of an unexpected pregnancy, but throughout her life from youth through adulthood and into menopause.”

“We have a unique way of helping women with fertility and pregnancy that respects them and the natural working of their body, while also recognizing they are people integrated into a life with family, work and other issues,” she said. “Holistic women’s health care means caring for the woman in all aspects of her health.”

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