Five years ago, the National Gianna Center for Women’s Health and Fertility opened its doors in New York City. Committed to caring for women’s health in a way that respected the Church’s teachings on life and human dignity, the Center envisioned itself as the Catholic alternative to Planned Parenthood. And, under the direction of the Center’s founder, Dr. Anne Nolte, it is fast reaching that goal, with more than a dozen new Gianna Centers now opening (or preparing to open) across the country.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Dr. Nolte about the Gianna Center’s mission and work, as well as its most recent growth.
Our Sunday Visitor: What need is the Gianna Center trying to meet?
Dr. Anne Nolte: Simply put, our mission is to provide pro-life, authentically Catholic reproductive health care for women. What was clear to us from the start was that Catholic women are an underserved population. The medical community loves talking about underserved populations, but by that they usually mean the poor and the needy. We felt, however, that Catholic women trying to live their faith also fit that description. Very few of them have access to reproductive health care that respects their faith. They’re made fun of for using Natural Family Planning and face constant pressure to not have more children. We wanted to provide those women with a place where they could come and receive care in line with their faith. Also, we want to assist crisis pregnancy centers and give them a place where they could send women to receive care that wouldn’t undermine their work. Too often, women go to crisis pregnancy centers, receive the support they need, and choose to keep their babies. Then, they go see a doctor who discourages them from continuing the pregnancy.
OSV: Helping women struggling with infertility was also a driving concern, correct?
Nolte: Most definitely. That was the third major piece of the mission. When it comes to infertility, you see so many couples who, after very little work is done to identify the underlying cause of their infertility, are told that their only hope is in vitro fertilization (IVF). We wanted to make available to all women a more restorative approach to treating infertility, as well as other women’s health problems, that included better evaluation and treatments that work with the women’s natural cycle.
OSV: Where did the idea for the Gianna Centers originate?
Nolte: There was no brilliant strategy behind it. When I was still a resident, my friend Joan Nolan called me up and said, “If you move to New York City to found a women’s health center, I have someone who will pay for it.” My first response was “No way.” But she encouraged me to pray about it, saying, “You never know what God is asking of you.” I did. And there came a distinct moment where I felt like God said he was asking me to do this. So, I thought, “All right. If the doors open to make it happen, I’ll do what I can.”
OSV: So, it was that easy?
Nolte: Not quite. The person she was talking about ended up not offering any funding at first. So, we spent the next year trying to make different contacts, but no doors opened. They were all dead ends. Finally, the original person she mentioned contacted me and said their foundation was prepared to fund our start-up operating costs and salaries up to $1 million. We took that as a clear confirmation and moved forward.
But in late 2008, about six months before we were supposed to open, with 150 couples on our waiting list, our donor lost everything in the stock market collapse. At that point, St. Vincent’s Hospital stepped forward, and with their support we opened the first Gianna Center in Midtown Manhattan on Dec. 8, 2009, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Unfortunately, before long, St. Vincent’s went bankrupt, and for a second time, we lost our funding.
On the day St. Vincent’s broke the news to us, I walked up to my office and told God, “Lord, if you want this to be, you have to send some help.”
In the mail that day we received a check for $100,000. Soon after, St. Peter’s Health Care System in New Brunswick, New Jersey, offered to take us in. Dr. Kyle Beiter went there to start the second Gianna Center and I stayed at the Manhattan center.
OSV: How has your vision for the Gianna Center changed or, maybe more accurately, grown over the last five years?
Nolte: Once we got the first center up and stable, we moved to a broader national goal of creating a network of these centers across the country. We created the Gianna brand, and almost immediately, a handful of physicians already in practice joined us under the Gianna Center name. Currently, we’re working pretty actively with two other major cities to get centers open. We’re also in preliminary discussions with either the bishop or lay people in six or seven other dioceses. In addition to the Manhattan and New Brunswick Centers, we now have affiliates in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Clinton, New Jersey; Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. We also have the potential to soon be in Wisconsin, New Orleans, Florida, Philadelphia, Rockville Centre (New York), Kentucky, Kansas City, Seattle and California.
OSV: What sort of assistance do you provide to the other centers?
Nolte: We have a team that includes clinical and administrative experts. Every other week, that team does a conference call with the potential centers to assess where they are in the different stages of development. We also help them develop a business plan and identify sources of grant funding. Right now, we’re creating a handbook to help practices get off the ground. It includes clinical protocols, writing job descriptions for nurses and advice on all the little tasks that go into the process. Additionally, we’ve developed some beautiful marketing materials they can use, and once a week, we do a clinical conference call where new providers join established providers and discuss cases. This is common in hospitals and helps everybody’s knowledge base grow. Lastly, as we’re successful with fundraising on a national level, we’re hoping to provide grants to other centers.
OSV: Why has it taken until now to see such a widespread push for pro-life women’s health centers?
Nolte: Before you can offer women an alternative, there has to be an alternative. For years, the standard medical approach to women’s health has boiled down to using the birth control pill to treat problems in any women who are not trying to get pregnant and then using IVF for women trying to get pregnant who can’t. Doctors are losing the ability to be good diagnosticians. Fortunately, the work of the Pope Paul VI Institute has given us a better medical foundation. Now that we have the tools they’ve developed, including NaPro Technology, we can build the infrastructure to deliver better care. There are a growing number of women asking for it and a growing number of medical professionals wanting to provide it. But again, we needed the medical foundation first.
OSV: What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced as you’ve gotten the Gianna Centers up and running?
Nolte: The work we do takes a lot of time with the patient — time to get to know symptoms, make a good diagnosis and then educate her about her cycle. The way health care is set up, however, time spent with a patient is the most poorly reimbursed care you can give. You get paid more for surgery or seeing lots of patients in a short period of time. To remedy that, we’re working for a more fair reimbursement structure with the health insurance companies. Similarly, as Catholic centers committed to Catholic ethics, we serve anyone, regardless of their ability to pay. That means, however, that we have to make up for that through grant funding. We also had our first annual fundraising gala in November.
OSV: What’s been the greatest reward?
Nolte: Every time a new baby is conceived, especially with the couples who have been told their only hope is IVF, but who then, with minimal intervention, conceive naturally. We have two bulletin boards in the office filled with pictures of babies our clients have conceived. Through the work of the New York center alone, over the past five years, 250 babies have been born to couples with infertility.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.