Lawmakers in Michigan are considering ending public funding for a program that counsels pregnant women on alternatives to abortion, prompting concern from the Michigan Catholic Conference, which has been advocating for the program since its inception five years ago.

The program, administered by a nonprofit called Real Alternatives, began in Pennsylvania in 1996 and has since helped thousands of women, across several states, facing unplanned pregnancies by providing counseling and material resources such as baby formula and other necessities. The program expanded its operations to Michigan beginning in June 2014 with the backing of the Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC).

Two Democratic Michigan state senators introduced amendments to the state budget this year to block funding for Real Alternatives, which failed to pass. The funding for the program— $700,000 in total— is still included in the legislature’s budget for 2020.

Despite this, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s new governor who took office in Jan. 2019, has so far not included funding for Real Alternatives in her most recent budget, according to a July 22 editorial in The Detroit News.

David Maluchnik, communications vice president for the MCC, told CNA that the MCC is continuing to advocate for funding for the program to be included in the state budget.

“We’ve already succeeded in beating back efforts to line-item the funds from committee and on the Senate floor,” Maluchnik told CNA via email.

“As out-of-state, pro-abortion organizations have spent at least six figures to defund the program, MCC continues to speak with administration officials and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as budget discussions continue.”

According to Real Alternatives’ estimates, the Michigan program has served 8,240 women at 31,958 support visits since 2014. The state has appropriated $3.3 million to the program since its inception.

“Citizens want to help these women. This is the fastest way to lower abortions,” Real Alternatives founding CEO Kevin Bagatta told CNA.

“Citizens are happy that their taxpayer monies are being used to help their fellow citizens in an unexpected pregnancy.”

If a woman is alone and poor, she may struggle with the pressures of an unexpected pregnancy, he said. What the Real Alternatives program does is provide a counselor, who helps the woman from conception until 12 months after the baby's birth, training her how to take care of the baby and herself.

The counselor acts as a mentor— like a big sister, he said, or maybe even the mother they never had— to help to relieve some of the stress and pressures of pregnancy. He noted that it is primarily a counseling program, not a medical program, although the program offers referrals for medical needs, and saves the state of Michigan money that it might have otherwise spent on additional medical care for pregnant women.

All together, he said, the program has served close to 400,000 women across all the states where it operates since its founding 24 years ago. Over the years, he said, numerous clients come back having finished a nursing degree to volunteer at the very center that helped them.

In Michigan, Real Alternatives uses a network of 15 pregnancy support centers, as well as several Catholic Charities affiliates, to provide its services to women.

According to the Michigan state health department, Real Alternatives is receiving $700,000 in funding for FY 2019, with $650,000 of that coming from federal grants and $50,000 from the state general fund.

Pennsylvania and beyond

Bagatta was one of the original founders of Real Alternatives, which was founded and is still headquartered in Pennsylvania. He said the Pennsylvania program alone has served over 308,000 women since its inception, and has inspired pro-life groups in other states to start similar programs. He said they've helped about 14 states so far to start similar programs whereby the state helps to fund the pregnancy support network.

“We're really no different from domestic violence and rape crisis programs,” he explained.

“In those programs you have a certain client, a woman who's vulnerable...and what this program is it's, again, another vulnerable client, the woman who's in an unexpected pregnancy.”

Bagatta noted that research done in the 1980s found that about 80% of women who had procured an abortion who were surveyed said that they would not have gone through with the procedure if just one person had taken the time to help them.

In 1996, then-Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey put funding in the state budget for alternatives to abortion services. Bagatta said this was the first time that a state used government funding for pregnancy centers and Catholic Charities to promote childbirth as an alternative to abortion for women facing unintended pregnancies.

Today, Real Alternatives runs the Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Michigan programs from their base in Harrisburg. They helped to start a similar program in Texas.

In 2013, Real Alternatives was asked by the Michigan Catholic Conference to help to explain the program to then-Governor Rick Snyder, who put money in the budget to start the state’s program.

Catholic Charities affiliates in the various states are staffed with licensed social workers and trained counselors.

Under the George W. Bush administration, the program was accepted as meeting the requirements to use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money from the federal government, which states may use as they see fit. This means many of the state programs are funded with federal dollars; Pennsylvania’s program, like Michigan’s, also is funded by some state revenue. Usually the program is accepted in a state with a pro-life governor, Bagatta said.

“Every state gets TANF money. So if you're a pro-life governor, you can have this program and use your TANF money to do a program like we have in the multiple states that we administer.”

In Michigan, half the clients are served through Catholic Charities affiliates in Kalamazoo, Southeast Michigan, West Michigan, and Washtenaw, in addition to three pregnancy centers.

Catholic Charities affiliates are able to dedicate staff specifically for this program as a result of the funding received, Bagatta said, and the funding model provides an incentive for the centers to serve more clients and open specific pregnancy resource programs.

Attempts to defund Real Alternatives

The program is not without its critics, however. Early in 2019, a group called the Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with the governor and attorney general stating that after pledging to administer 8,000 visits and serve 2,000 people in Michigan in Real Alternatives’ first year of operation, the program “only managed to oversee a mere 785 visits and serve only 403 women.”

The Campaign for Accountability also stated that the abortion rate in Michigan had remained “about the same” during the time that Real Alternatives had been active in the state.

The Campaign for Accountability is run by the Hopewell Fund, a nonprofit whose executive director and project director formerly worked for the pro-abortion Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood.

“You wouldn't think the work to help women, so that she doesn't have to choose an abortion, would be controversial. But it is,” Bagatta said.

“We're surprised that in 2019 there are groups that don't want us to be funded, there are groups that don't want the program to succeed.”

Previously, in September 2017, Pennsylvania’s auditor general recommended ending the state’s contract with Real Alternatives because, in his estimation, the organization had used Pennsylvania state money to expand its operations in other states, in violation of the group’s agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Real Alternatives responded in a statement at the time, saying that the Program Development and Advancement Agreement is a second, voluntary contract whereby service providers “hire Real Alternatives to grow its model Pregnancy and Parenting Support Program.”

Real Alternatives said that while service providers are fully reimbursed for their services, many of them voluntarily agreed to provide 3% back to Real Alternatives— which then became private funds— in order to help to spread the program to other states. This allowed Real Alternatives to, in their words, “scrupulously” comply with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services requirements that Pennsylvania state dollars not be used in other states.

Real Alternatives said this process had been audited four times in the past with no issues, and ultimately successfully sued the state of Pennsylvania, claiming the auditor general was overreaching his authority by seeking to audit Real Alternative’s use of those private funds.

Future uncertain

Maluchnik of the Michigan Catholic Conference reiterated that Real Alternatives provides needed care for women who would otherwise choose abortion.

“[The program] not only provides support and care, it provides formula and [referrals for] pre- and post-natal meds; it gets clothing and shelter to mom and baby where there may otherwise be none; it helps with parenting tips when there’s no one to talk to; it offsets threats to infant mortality and gives young children and mothers a healthy start and a brighter future.”

“In the end, pulling the rug from under low-income women and her unborn or infant child at a time when they’re most vulnerable would constitute a heartless, calculated political maneuver. We’re praying it does not happen.”