A Better Choice
Reflecting on the day she found out that she was pregnant, Davina Ellis said, “I was terrified. I was scared.”
At the time, Ellis was a 20-year-old college student in southern California. She and her boyfriend were in love, but by no means ready for marriage, let alone a baby.
In over her head, Ellis didn’t know where to turn. An Internet search for health clinics and pregnancy testing led her to discover Birth Choice, a network of state-licensed clinics now called Obria Medical Clinics.
“They gave me a pregnancy test, and I had an ultrasound a week later,” Ellis recalled. “I found out I was six weeks pregnant and was in tears the whole time. They treated me with care and love.”
Seven years later, Ellis and her boyfriend are married, and the couple has three children. Ellis now serves on the board of Obria, and she remains grateful for the compassion she received during a time of crisis.
Similar care and love is provided by thousands of pregnancy help centers, many of which offer not only support such as free pregnancy testing, counseling, referrals and baby clothes, but also medical services such as ultrasound scans. Still others, like the Obria Medical Clinics, provide comprehensive health care services from a pro-life perspective, which excludes contraceptives and abortion.
THE EVOLUTION OF CARE
The history of pregnancy resource centers predates the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which decriminalized abortion throughout the United States. According to the Family Research Council, the first center opened in California in 1968 and, within a few years, dozens more sprang up to serve pregnant women in need. Today, the number has mushroomed to include more than 2,500 pro-life, non-profit community-supported pregnancy help centers and medical clinics nationwide.
Kathleen Eaton Bravo, founder and CEO of Obria Medical Clinics of Southern California, Inc., and the Obria Foundation, has played an active part in this history since 1981, when she opened the first Birth Choice clinic to help vulnerable pregnant women.
Bravo understood firsthand that these women needed information, love and support to empower them to choose life for their unborn babies. One year earlier, at age 28, Bravo had faced an unexpected pregnancy and was urged to have an abortion. She went through with it, and rather than feeling relief, she suddenly found herself lost and alone.
“After that abortion, I walked away from everything in my life. I quit my job. I was living on the run,” Bravo said.
Months later, amid a time of darkness, Bravo decided to go to church for the first time in eight years. By coincidence, a parishioner spoke at the end of Mass about a pregnancy help center she had opened.
“At that moment I said, ‘O God, if you would bring me just one woman, and I can share with her what I went through, and she doesn’t abort, I can forgive myself,’” said Bravo.
That was 36 years ago. Today, Bravo has touched the lives of thousands.
After converting the network of Birth Choice pregnancy resource centers to licensed medical clinics in 2007, Bravo rebranded the expanding nonprofit organization as Obria Medical Clinics last year. Each staffed with a doctor, nurses, nurse practitioners and medical assistants — many of whom are volunteers — Obria clinics provide a full range of free health care services and other resources to low-income and underserved individuals.
With six medical clinics in southern California, the organization has received indispensable grassroots support, including from local Knights of Columbus councils. Obria clinics have already received eight ultrasound machines through the Order’s Ultrasound Initiative.
“Since we received our ultrasound machines from the Knights of Columbus, we have saved 6,840 babies,” said Bravo.
‘A COMPETITIVE MODEL’
In August 2013, Obria received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development to expand the organization’s mission. Bravo is currently working with approximately 30 clinics across the country that are looking to affiliate with Obria, and she has ambitious plans for further growth.
Recent research indicates that a national brand will be effective. In a 2014 survey conducted by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the pro-life research wing of the Susan B. Anthony List in Washington, D.C., more than 70 percent of women and men said it was “very” or “fairly” important that a pregnancy help center have a national affiliation.
“That’s what I call a competitive model,” Bravo said. “Our clinics are pro-life, social justice clinics, serving the patients by offering them a continuum of care — medical, education, housing, food or a job — which the other side will never do, because they don’t care about that.”
According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute’s 2014 survey, more than 93 percent of women and men consider having a medical professional at a pregnancy help center a top priority. It is no surprise, then, that a growing number of pregnancy centers are following a medical model.
For example, Foundations of Life Pregnancy Centers of Catholic Charities help women in and around Tampa, Fla., at four locations staffed by medical professionals. As with Obria, many of them are volunteers.
The Knights of Columbus Florida State Council has funded five ultrasound machines for the Foundations of Life clinics, one of which is named the Knights Women’s Center. A local Knight even pays the rent on the office space.
“When one of the retail stores became available next to an abortion facility, we took a leap of faith,” said Rose Llauget, executive director of Foundations of Life. “We built a complete pregnancy center with three offices and a brand new 3D ultrasound machine.”
She added, “Our main goal is to meet a woman where she is at — that’s Mother Teresa’s approach.”
For Bravo, too, starting a pro-life clinic was an act of faith.
“You think I had the funding? I had $56 when I opened up that first medical clinic,” Bravo said. “Don’t limit the Holy Spirit.”
Similar to Foundations for Life, Informed Choices of Iowa operates four pro-life medical clinics and counting, for which Iowa Knights have funded five ultrasound machines. Each clinic offers free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, STD testing, cancer screenings, early prenatal care and referral services.
Executive Director Rachel Owen said that since the first Informed Choices clinic opened in 2007, over 1,000 babies have been saved.
“More than 91 percent of women who come to us abortion-determined instead choose to carry,” she said.
Informed Choices is opening a fifth clinic this month and also adding a mobile medical unit. By preventing abortions with the help of ultrasound technology, as well as by providing health care services such as STD testing and cervical cancer screening, the clinics are serving many women who would otherwise go to Planned Parenthood.
“In the next five years, we will blanket the state of Iowa so that no woman will go without prenatal care for her unplanned pregnancy,” Owen said. “We will be defunding Planned Parenthood by taking their clients away.”
In the wake of congressional votes to defund Planned Parenthood, the claim that women won’t have access to health care if federal funds for the organization are cut simply doesn’t hold up.
The website getyourcare.org, which is sponsored by an alliance of pro-life groups, provides information about the more than 13,000 federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health centers (RHCs) where women can receive affordable health care. By contrast, Planned Parenthood, which receives $500 million in government funding, has fewer than 700 clinics.
Nevertheless, FQHCs are required by federal law to provide contraceptives and abortion referrals, explained Charles Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.
A member of George Brent Council 5332 in Manassas, Va., Donovan said such centers are often “a stepping stone away from Planned Parenthood” and thus not a long-term solution.
“Pregnancy help centers are still the only guaranteed pro-life alternative,” he added, noting his hope that lawmakers will help fund pro-life centers.
This is already happening in Florida, where the Foundations of Life clinics are funded in part by Florida Pregnancy Care Network, which runs a pregnancy support program for the Florida Department of Health. And though the organization receives some state funding, volunteers are allowed to pray with clients.
For patients and pro-life workers alike, faith and compassionate care usually go hand in hand. This was true for Davina Ellis, who understands how much perspective faith can provide when facing an unplanned pregnancy.
“Every child is a blessing, no matter the circumstance,” Ellis said. “With God’s guidance, I knew we were going to be OK.”
CAROLEE MCGRATH is co-host of Catholic TV’s women’s show, The Gist. A wife and mother of five, she writes from Massachusetts.
The K of C Ultrasound Initiative
Since the Knights of Columbus Ultrasound Initiative launched Jan. 22, 2009 — the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — state and local councils have assisted qualified pregnancy centers by raising half the cost of ultrasound machines. Through the Order’s Culture of Life Fund, the Supreme Council then matches that amount toward the purchase price of the machines, starting at about $20,000.
To date, the initiative has funded and placed 644 ultrasound machines — valued at more than $33 million — in all 50 states, as well as in Canada, Jamaica, Guatemala and Peru.
“Not only has this program saved the lives of countless children, it has also saved countless mothers from a lifetime of sorrow,” affirmed Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson in his 2015 annual report. “And should someone ask why the Knights of Columbus does this, tell them the answer is simple: because we love them both.”
Jurisdictions with the most machines funded are Florida (48), Texas (46), California (45), Missouri (39), Michigan (35) and Ohio (32). Many of the machines funded through the Ultrasound Initiative are equipped with 3D/4D imaging and a Doppler monitor to hear the baby’s heartbeat.
“I find a lot of people are quietly pro-life, yet the passion is clearly out there,” said Vincent J. Cipriano, the Florida State Council Ultrasound Initiative Chairman.
Citing a K of C-organized Laps for Life walking event in Orlando that raised $75,000 and helped pay for five machines, Cipriano added, “When we run an ultrasound fundraiser, I’m amazed at how much money comes in.”
Bob Sinclair, the Iowa K of C culture of life director, described a new statewide initiative aimed at reducing the number of abortions in Iowa by 50 percent by 2020. In addition to raising money to provide ultrasound machines, he said, local councils will also provide training, help open new pregnancy centers in locations that have a need, and assist with marketing to reach women in crisis.
“The culture has been Roe v. Wade for a long time,” Sinclair said. “But we continue to stick up for the most vulnerable — both pregnant mothers and their unborn children.”
For more information, visit kofc.org/ultrasound.