The Catholic church should partner with Planned Parenthood to reduce abortions

  • Jane Patnaude of Elk Point, South Dakota, prays at the Planned Parenthood facility in Sioux City, Iowa, after attending a "Women Betrayed" rally in Sioux City July 28. (CNS/Jerry L. Mennenga, The Catholic Globe)
 |  NCR Today

After 40 years of rosaries prayed in front of abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood offices, annual marches, and millions upon millions of dollars raised to fund the anti-abortion lobby and the related jobs program for the anti-abortion lobbyists, what is the end result? Eh.

This past Saturday, thousands of anti-abortion activists protested at Planned Parenthood sites across the nation demanding that the federal government defund the organization, according to Reuters. Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., diocese prayed in front of a local Planned Parenthood health clinic.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Eric Ferrero, Vice President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement that the rallies were meant "to intimidate and harass" the organization's patients. "Unlike these protesters, compassion is at the center of what we do, and we will continue to provide care, and a safe, welcoming environment for our patients, no matter what," Ferrero said.

Forty years of the same behavior from both sides of the abortion debate. Forty years.

Let's face it. It's time for the Catholic church and Planned Parenthood to try something dramatically different: to work closely together in order to reduce the number of abortions. It's time for a committee of national Catholic lay leaders and executives of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers to begin a sincere dialogue about creating a new way forward -- together.

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Planned Parenthood, according to Ferrero, is a place of compassion. But what is "compassion" to Planned Parenthood? Does it mean pushing abortion as the solution to every pregnancy? If Planned Parenthood's pregnant mothers were offered a substantial list of benefits should they bring their pregnancy to term, would Planned Parenthood offer them such benefits and advise the mother in favor of keeping the baby or giving the baby up for adoption? If Planned Parenthood is truly for "choice," then the pregnant woman should have a choice of keeping the baby or giving the baby up for adoption. Now that's real choice.

Abortion is here to stay for the foreseeable future

Stepping back for a moment, let's also face this fact: The right to an abortion remains the law of the land, it is not going to change any time soon. Yes, some Republican-controlled state legislatures are doing everything they can to tighten restrictions on access to abortions and abortion providers. But the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade is not going to be overturned any time soon.

In 2011, TIME Magazine reported:

The rate of abortion among American women has dropped overall, but not among the poorest women, according to study published in the Obstetrics & Gynecology journal by the Guttmacher Institute.

Between 2000 and 2008, abortions among American women ages 15 to 44 fell 8 percent, reaching a low of 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women. The decline applied to most groups: notably, the abortion rate declined 18 percent among African-American women over that time period and 22 percent among teens ages 15 to 17.

However, women living in profound poverty were the one exception. Women whose incomes fell below the federal poverty level ($10,830 for a single woman with no children) accounted for 42 percent of all abortions in 2008. Between 2000 and 2008, the abortion rate among the lowest-income women climbed from 44 to 53 abortions per 1,000 women — an increase of 18 percent overall.

Church: the largest social service provider

Time and time again, the church hierarchy marches out the claim that the church is the largest social service provider outside the federal government, largely due to its hundreds of decentralized Catholic Charities agencies. Catholic Charities, in turn, is a major recipient of state and federal government contractor funds that enables them to become the largest provider of services to the poor.

The Catholic Health Association is comprised of more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states, and the Catholic health ministry is the largest group of nonprofit health care providers in the nation.

Under President Barack Obama, the Catholic church has received more federal money than under any previous president. In 2012, I wrote a blog post titled, "Following the money from the White House," which traced the federal funds going to Catholic enterprises.

But in the area of social services, especially in serving the poorest of the poor, what about actually reducing the number of annual abortions? Approximately 1 million abortions are performed each year. Abortions are performed in health clinics, hospitals and doctors' offices. Planned Parenthood Federation of America performs over 300,000 of them. The average cost of an abortion is approximately $450. The Guttmacher Institute has plenty of statistics on the subject, which can be read here.

According to Gallup polling, 29 percent believe abortion should be available under all circumstances, 51 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and 19 percent believe it should be illegal under all circumstances.

Republicans are against abortion, in favor of adoptions

The last two Republican Party presidential platforms were full-throated in their opposition to abortion. In fact, each platform favored a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that has no chance of passing. The 2008 platform had this to say about adoptions: "We salute those who provide them alternatives, including pregnancy care centers, and we take pride in the tremendous increase in adoptions that has followed Republican legislative initiatives."

Four years later, the Republican presidential platform said the same thing: "We salute those who provide them with counseling and adoption alternatives and empower them to choose life, and we take comfort in the tremendous increase in adoptions that has followed Republican legislative initiatives." Neither the 2008 or 2012 platforms list any such initiatives.

Democrats want choice, fewer abortions, more adoptions

In 1996, President Bill Clinton had this to say about abortion: "Americans believe deeply in the need to keep government out of private, personal matters. That is one reason why I am pro-choice. I believe we should all work to reduce the number of abortions. That is why I have worked to reduce teen pregnancy, remove barriers to cross-racial adoption, and provide tax credits to families willing to adopt. Still, I believe the ultimate choice should remain a matter for a woman to decide in consultation with her conscience, her doctor, and her God" (emphasis added) (Between Hope and History, by Bill Clinton, p.137, Jan 1, 1996).

The Democratic Party is perceived as being immovable on pro-choice and, therefore, not inclined to promote programs to help reduce the number of abortions. However, according to the website, Catholics for Obama, it offered this evidence that Democrats would like to reduce the number of abortions:

Congressional Democrats have supported the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act (HR 1074, known as the DeLauro-Ryan bill) and the Prevention First Act bill (HR 819). Democrats are serious about finding new solutions to serious problems posed by the practice of abortion.

Congressional Democrats have also worked on making other alternatives more attractive with the Adoption Promotion Act of 2003 (Public Law No: 108-145).

These are solutions that can lead to policies that reduce the number of abortions, not the empty rhetoric that promotes criminalization but does nothing to enhance life for real women and children.

Democrats for Life have made an important contribution with their Pregnant Women Support Act, which is supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It aims to reduce the abortion rate in America by 95 percent in 10 years by enacting the social and economic supports that actually do something to help women avoid going through this ordeal.

And nothing changes

With the release of the controversial undercover Planned Parenthood videos featuring the cavalier discussion of the sale of fetal tissue for research, and the resultant outcry from varied quarters, the pro and con groups have just dug in further and have not used this moment to explore a different way forward.

Some Republican governors are attempting to defund Planned Parenthood; the usual default behavior of Republicans. One U.S. senator wants to risk a government shut-down over Planned Parenthood. One Catholic organization wants to re-direct Planned Parenthood funds to community health centers that don't offer abortion services. That's not going to happen. In the past few weeks, there has been no new or creative thinking offered.

After 40 years of substantially fruitless battles, the time has come for both Planned Parenthood and Catholic church leaders to leave the comfort zone of condemnation and pledge to do at least one common project that puts women and babies first in truth.

What if a coalition of national Catholic entities (e.g., representatives of Catholic Charities USA, each diocesan Catholic Charities, the National Catholic Educational Association, the Catholic Health Association, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the leadership group of men religious, the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Extension Society, the Order of Malta, Covenant House International, the many grassroots organizations like Mary Cunningham Agee's The Nurturing Network, and so on), developed a concrete, substantial partnership, even a joint venture, with Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, along the following lines:

  • The national Catholic entity would "adopt" every expectant mother referred to by Planned Parenthood as early in the pregnancy as possible, and would secure free pre-natal and post-natal care for the expectant mother, and would access public and private resources, including insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
  • On a no-questions-asked, confidential basis, this national Catholic entity and its network of providers, would accept every delivered baby by mothers referred by Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.
  • For each such referral to the national Catholic entity, a new federal entity would contribute to Planned Parenthood a restricted financial donation or offset to the revenue benefit to Planned Parenthood from the foregone abortion itself, provided the expectant mother gave birth to the baby. This donation offset would be restricted in use to the many services Planned Parenthood and other providers offer that are non-controversial and important (e.g., anemia testing, cholesterol screening, diabetes screening, flu vaccinations, quitting smoking, blood pressure exams, thyroid screenings). The use of these donations would be subject to audits.
  • In addition, for every 250,000 referrals of expectant mothers resulting in births of otherwise scheduled abortions, Planned Parenthood and other referring providers would split a $5 million incentive fee, up to $20 million annually. Again, these funds can be subject to an audit.
  • Every expectant mother brought into the national Catholic organization through a Planned Parenthood referral would receive the same benefits if the mother decides to keep the baby, as does a mother who decides to give up the baby for adoption. There are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of small not-for-profit organizations around the country that are providing pregnant mothers with all sorts of services that allow the mother to thrive during her pregnancy and to keep her baby. These smaller organizations would be welcomed into this national Catholic organization and become a part of it.
  • Post-birth, the national Catholic entity would place the baby in a qualified adoptive family at little-to-no cost to the adoptive family. Each adopted baby would be guaranteed a tuition free Catholic primary and secondary education, if the family wants such an education. An alternative non-Catholic legal structure/vehicle would be created to allow for gay adoptions, which the Catholic church does not support at this time. 
  • The national Catholic entity would also continue a relationship with the mother to provide her, to the extent welcomed, financial, psychological, employment, housing and educational assistance for a period of two years, or for a sufficient period of time in which the mother is on her feet and solidly on her way to a new, self-sustaining future.
  • The national Catholic entity would not opine or interfere with any other programs or services offered by Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. In other words, Planned Parenthood and other providers would keep doing what they do, irrespective of the church's other views that may be different than Planned Parenthood's.
  • Both the national Catholic entity and Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers would have pre-emption rights to deny hostile members from each group from participating in this initiative. The culture war is a dead-end street. Culture warriors need not apply.

Funding for such a national adoption initiative

In advance of the 2012 election, three Catholic professionals wrote a thoughtful white paper titled: "America Undecided: Catholic, Independent & Social Justice Perspectives on Election 2012." The authors were Ed Gaffney, who teaches religious freedom and a course on war and peace at Valparaiso University; Ambassador Douglas W. Kmiec (former U.S. ambassador to Malta), the Caruso Family Chair and Professor of Constitutional Law & Human Rights at Pepperdine University, who formerly served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations; and Patrick Whelan, M.D., Ph.D., who is on the pediatrics faculty at Harvard Medical School and is a pediatric rheumatology specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston, who served on the board of directors of NCR and on a group called Catholic Democrats.

They write [as of that time]:

[The Affordable Care Act] ACA represented the first federal law that provided new funding and was explicitly dedicated to abortion reduction. The law incorporated elements of the Pregnant Women's Support Act, sponsored by Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, providing $250 million over 10 years to create a federal Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF) that is helping teenagers and college students who are new mothers or currently pregnant, and helps victims of domestic violence who are pregnant. There are currently 17 PAF-funded programs, helping new parents in states and Indian tribes across the country.

In 2011, Senator Casey procured expanded funding for the PAF with S.1490, the Pregnancy Assistance Fund Expansion Act, which provided for $25 million in annual grant funding through 2019. The currently funded programs include Young Mom's Connect in North Carolina (support and care for teen parents in 5 counties), the Pregnant and Parenting Adolescent Support Services (PPass) Program in Indianapolis (avoiding subsequent pregnancies and decreasing high school drop-out rates), the Montana Healthy Teen Parents project in Helena (focused on Native American youth), and the Virginia Department of Health program (domestic violence, particularly affecting college students across the state).

So the ACA provides for a wide variety of new ideas in constructively addressing the causes of unintended teen pregnancy. The ACA also provided $1.2 billion in additional funding for adoption. The law raises the maximum adoption credit to $13,360 per child, up from $12,150 in 2009. The credit is based on the reasonable and necessary expenses related to a legal adoption. In summary, the ACA did nothing to expand abortion rights or funding, and in fact provided funding for the first organized effort to help decrease abortion by addressing the underlying social factors that make it difficult for women to carry pregnancy to term.

In addition to the ACA's funding for adoption, Congress should immediately fund this new initiative. The U.S. spends over a billion dollars annually resettling 70,000 foreign refugees. Republicans and Democrats can't find funding for a national adoption strategy for Planned Parenthood's pregnant patients through a national Catholic organization? Surely it can. Imagine, for a moment, a combined approach whereby the national Catholic organization and Planned Parenthood together sought legislation and funding from Congress to facilitate this adoption strategy?

As part of the federal funding, a Congressionally-chartered third-party could be funded by Congress and would be tasked with making the donations or off-sets to Planned Parenthood for the adoption referrals rather than being paid for by the national Catholic entity, even as a pass-through. This third-party entity could act as an auditor and compiler of data and could be comprised of individuals from both political parties and from both sides of the abortion issue. The U.S. created the American Red Cross pursuant to a Congressional charter and bylaws. Congress could most certainly do the same for an entity whose singular mission would be to reduce the number of annual abortions performed by Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers and bring together people with different perspectives and interests in order to achieve such a goal.

Given the scope of the Catholic Charities nationwide, the Catholic Health Association, the universities, and so on, mathematicians, accountants, insurers, logistics experts, health care providers, government relations experts, adoption experts, software writers, marketing professionals, primary, secondary and college educators, parishes, hospitals, and so many other skilled individuals and institutions are immediately available to create the financial and operating model to make this work. This national Catholic entity will need to be governed and managed by sophisticated lay people and professionals in several fields of expertise.

The role of Catholic bishops, the issue of contraception

The U.S. bishops and their national staff are deeply and heavily invested in the view of Planned Parenthood as the evil opposition to a "pro-life" view of the world. Would the U.S. bishops as a whole be open to working with Planned Parenthood in a collegial, cooperative manner to reduce abortions? If Francis' wish for a poor church for the poor and one filled with mercy, the answer would be yes. However, it would take great courage and fortitude to pursue a national adoption strategy working hand-in-hand with Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.

As we have seen during the past several years, contraception is very important to many bishops and they want nothing to do with it. Yet, Planned Parenthood, like most lay Catholics, has a different view of the value of contraception and it's a big part of Planned Parenthood's services.

Just this past month, the New York Times reported that dramatic success of the use of contraception in the reduction of teen pregnancies in Colorado. According to the Times:

Over the past six years, Colorado has conducted one of the largest experiments with long-acting birth control. If teenagers and poor women were offered free intrauterine devices and implants that prevent pregnancy for years, state officials asked, would those women choose them?

They did in a big way, and the results were startling. The birthrate among teenagers across the state plunged by 40 percent from 2009 to 2013, while their rate of abortions fell by 42 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. There was a similar decline in births for another group particularly vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies: unmarried women under 25 who have not finished high school.

"Our demographer came into my office with a chart and said, 'Greta, look at this, we've never seen this before,' " said Greta Klingler, the family planning supervisor for the public health department. "The numbers were plummeting."

Would the U.S. bishops deny this vulnerable cohort free contraception knowing that an abortion is the highly expected result of an unplanned pregnancy?

Time to think big and with mercy

To date, the Catholic church is not thinking big enough in its attempts to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. It never has, but that time has arrived.

Unless the Catholic church stands up and says unequivocally, "Let us work closely with Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers and with every expectant mother who is considering an abortion and we will support all mothers who choose to keep their baby or accept every newborn child who was otherwise scheduled for an abortion but is delivered and given up for adoption, and we will work closely with Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers and with the birth moms before, during and after the pregnancy," it's hard to take seriously the "commitment" the church has to reducing abortions.

The hardline protesters can still go praying their rosaries while holding their blood-stained placards in front of Planned Parenthood offices. Policy initiatives can still be pursued to reduce the number of abortions and to keep abortion available. And fundraising in support of the lobbyists fighting abortions will continue unabated, as will fundraising and lobbying efforts in support of the pro-choice advocates. All this is certain.

After 40 years of the same old hostile, screaming stand-off and in-your-face, finger-pointing between the anti-abortionists and pro-choice advocates, at what point do the futile anti-abortion tactics become morally complicit in each of the one million abortions performed each year? And when will Planned Parenthood's "pro-choice" mantra actually include enabling a pregnant woman to choose to keep her baby or choose to give the baby up for adoption?

In light of the intractable status quo, the real work of reducing abortions, a goal of both Democrats and Republicans, can only take place by a national Catholic lay-led and governed entity engaging the self-described compassionate Planned Parenthood -- and expectant mothers visiting Planned Parenthood offices -- in a way that builds up life and does not continue to tear it asunder.

Forty more years of doing the same thing is sheer insanity.

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to the NCR and lead writer for the newspaper's Mission Management column.]

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