When Angela Grimm was a 19-year-old freshman at Marquette University in Milwaukee, she took a home pregnancy test, and confirmed she was carrying a baby.
But she didn’t know how far along she was, or what she wanted to do about it. So she made an appointment at a local Planned Parenthood clinic, figuring that at the very least she could get some information.
“I wanted just to go and see an ultrasound,” she said. After paying $75, she got an ultrasound — but never got to see the images.
|A client’s baby smiles as the mother and child look at clothing at a Women’s Care Center location. Photos courtesy of Women’s Care Center Foundation
“They told me I was at 19 weeks, and I had very little time to make a decision. So I scheduled the appointment for an abortion,” she told Our Sunday Visitor.
Before she went back, she ended up at the Women’s Care Center across the street from the clinic. The center is one of 19 locations of the largest network of pregnancy resource centers in the United States. Many of them, like the one in Milwaukee, are located within sight of abortion facilities in hopes of giving desperate women a glimpse of hope.
For Grimm, the Women’s Care Center offered a place where she could share her thoughts and concerns and find understanding. She received a free, on-the-spot ultrasound, where she got to see her baby son for the first time.
“I didn’t know that by that time, he was pretty well developed,” she said.
She also learned that the abortion she had thought would be a simple procedure would instead involve killing the fetus and then inducing labor. She never went back to the abortion clinic.
About a year and a half later, her son, Weston, is a healthy 1-year-old, getting around and getting into things. She and her boyfriend are still together and sharing parenting duties, and she credits the Women’s Care Center with helping her think through her options and come up with a plan. It also provided parenting classes.
Her work on goal-setting and learning about parenting earned her credits for a crib and other baby equipment provided by the center.
She’s still in school at Marquette, with plans to graduate in 2014. She’s already brought a friend with an unexpected pregnancy to the Women’s Care Center, and she willingly shares her story in hopes of encouraging more people to take advantage of their services.
“They really brought a sense of security,” Grimm said. “Being young, and with so many big unknowns, they really helped me figure out what to do.”
Stories like Grimm’s are music to the people behind the Women’s Care Center. With nearly a score of locations in four states, the Women’s Care Center has found a formula that works. In 2012, an estimated 22,000 women came through the doors of its sites, making a total of 90,000 visits.
|Ann Manion, Women’s Care Center Foundation board president, cuddles with children during a parenting class. Photos courtesy of Women’s Care Center Foundation
The centers are Catholic-based, with Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., on the Women’s Care Center’s governing board, and all of its services are in line with Church teaching, although volunteers and the women they serve may be of any faith.
Two more centers — in Peoria, Ill., and Duluth, Minn. — are scheduled to open this year, with the support of Catholic organizations such as the Our Sunday Visitor Institute and committed Catholic groups in their own communities. The Our Sunday Visitor Institute has helped with 10 grants since 1993, most often to help with start-up costs for new centers.
Now the Women’s Care Center Foundation is using a new model for expansion, licensing new centers rather than taking direct responsibility for them. It doesn’t cost anything for a center to be a licensee, but it must follow the Women’s Care Center policies and procedures, and be able to be self-supporting in terms of donations and fundraising. As with the other centers, many of the start-up costs, including training for counselors, is paid for with grants.
But unlike some pregnancy resource centers run by evangelical Christian churches, it does not preach to its clients, said Ann Manion, president of the Women’s Care Center Foundation board.
“We meet them where they are,” she said. “Our approach is really what you would call a secular approach. We just work to love and serve women in crisis. When a scared teenager comes to us, the last thing she needs is a sermon. We need to be there to love her unconditionally.”
Power of prayer
That’s the approach taken by most Catholic-backed pregnancy resource centers, including the Women’s Center, which has three sites in the Chicago area. The center is clear about its Catholic identity: While it serves women of all faiths, it has a perpetual Eucharistic adoration chapel onsite at its main office, and executive director Mary Strom credits the power of prayer for much of its success.
“Everything comes from that,” she said.
Its counselors share information that conforms to Church teaching: that every life is a gift and has dignity that must be preserved. But the women who come also have dignity that must be respected, Strom told OSV.
“We treat each individual as just that, an individual,” Strom said. “We don’t prejudge their circumstances, or even pretend to understand what they are going through. We listen, we start asking questions to get to know the person. What are the driving factors that lead them to believe abortion would be the best choice, or the only choice?”
Although such centers offer nothing but help for pregnant women in need, they have been criticized for misleading women who might think they provide abortions. In California, they now must post signs saying they neither perform abortions nor provide referrals for abortions.
Most of the women who come in and have an ultrasound choose to carry their pregnancies to term — 97 percent at the center Grimm visited in Milwaukee. Abortion rates in communities where Women’s Care Centers are located have declined (see sidebar), and a clinic that performed late-term abortions in Niles, Mich., closed in October 2012. It was located next door to a Women’s Care Center.
“This is where the women come. This is where the hearts are touched, and this is where the minds are changed,” said Bobby Williams, director of the Women’s Care Center Foundation. “It’s important that it’s done right.”
When women call, they are encouraged to come in for a medical-grade pregnancy test and an ultrasound. While two centers offer onsite prenatal care through medical partners, the others offer referrals for care, as well as for all of the other things a pregnant young woman might need, such as housing and financial assistance.
The centers offer prenatal vitamins — since there is often a wait for doctor appointments — counseling to help the women (and the fathers if they want it) to set goals and develop plans to achieve them, and child development and parenting classes. Moms’ groups help women meet others who are in the same situation.
Those who participate get coupons to shop in the “Crib Club,” where they can get brand-new baby equipment. Centers also have some donated used items for mothers who need them.
“We don’t want to be bringing babies into the world and have unprepared young mothers,” Manion said.
“We do put a lot of emphasis on practical assistance after the birth,” Williams said. The most important thing is to show pregnant women in crisis that they matter.
“With most pro-life groups, it’s all about ‘save the baby,’” Williams told OSV. “Ours is a uniquely pro-woman approach. … Regardless of folks’ political affiliations, or what they think, we’re winning. A lot of times the pro-lifers are kind of down and disappointed. What we like to focus on are the positive things.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.