When I became the first woman CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in 2011, it…
The important work of women’s care centers
Around this time of year, as we approach the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion on Jan. 22, the Church turns its attention to pro-life issues.
At large gatherings such as the March for Life in Washington, D.C., and at smaller marches around the country, there is always a smaller contingent of pro-abortion protestors holding signs with messages like “What about the mother?” or “You care about the child but forget the mother.” But that’s not true.
In fact, every day, staff and volunteers at the thousands of pro-life women’s centers, residential maternity homes and clinics around the country work and minister daily to help not just the unborn baby but the woman carrying the child. Check out the website of any of your local women’s centers and you will find that to be the case.
The women come to them in crisis, to be sure. They are scared and vulnerable. Every woman has a different story to tell. Maybe they are underage and are terrified to tell their parents they are pregnant. Maybe they are of age and their boyfriend or family is pressuring them to abort the baby. Or maybe they have a more horrific story to tell of being trafficked or raped.
Whatever their story, women’s centers, residential homes and clinics offer various things like emotional, mental, physical and material support for these pregnant women. They try daily to help dispel the real fear women in crisis pregnancies have that they are in a no-win situation and have nowhere to turn for tangible care and support. That support often is available not just during the pregnancy but after, when they are learning to raise their child.
And when a woman does chose abortion, these places are often there to help them pick up the pieces from the trauma, offering post-abortion healing programs to not just the moms but the dads, too.
Yet, this important work — and the heroic people who do it — often goes unnoticed or unknown among the masses. Below we feature four women’s centers, clinics or residential homes around the country who share the reality of the work on the frontlines of the pro-life movement every day and how they are helping not just save the babies, but the moms, too.
Joyce Duriga writes from Illinois.
Aid for Women | Chicago
“Illinois is a very hostile environment for people who are trying to protect and defend life,” said Susan Barrett, executive director of Aid for Women in Chicago. “Planned Parenthood has opened three big clinics in the last few years. They definitely opened up in areas where women have no insurance so that they can get the free abortion through Medicaid, and they are definitely targeting minority communities, which has been their plan all along for many years.”
Founded in 1978, Aid for Women offers a variety of services to help women in crisis pregnancies, such as a 24-hour helpline, ultrasounds and two residential programs. While not overtly faith-based, its mission is rooted in Catholic values, and the residential homes have chapels inside.
“Our care is definitely focused on the mom and her needs, because when someone is seeking an abortion, there is usually a lot of other things going on, so we try and address those needs, whether they be emotional [or] material,” Barrett said.
They can also offer adequate housing.
“Even the homes, they are serving more people than actually live there because a woman is sitting there with a decision to make, and it gives her hope that she knows if something doesn’t work out in her current living situation she has another option.”
The organization tries to establish a relationship with these women based on trust and the knowledge that Aid for Women will be there for them, even in years ahead if they need diapers or clothes for their children.
Barrett said they are seeing younger and younger women seeking abortions in recent years.
“The main thing that’s driving that decision is fear,” Barrett said. “They are just afraid. They just can’t see a way out.”
During their time of trauma, Aid for Women staff and volunteers try and help them see there are options other than having an abortion.
“Usually it’s often fear that they don’t want to tell their parents. Maybe a boyfriend is pressuring them. We get that a lot, that they are under pressure from someone else to have the abortion and they’re not feeling supported in their decision to continue the pregnancy, which is where we step in and do that for them.”
Four of Aid for Women’s centers have ultrasounds, which are helpful tools to help the women choose to keep their babies.
“That’s always really effective too because it … makes it real for them that they can see the child and just start processing things and what it all means,” Barrett said.
Aid for Women has also seen an increase in requests for abortion pill reversals.
“It often happens where the person will take the first of the two abortion pills and immediately regret it. So they will call us. Time is of the essence, so we try and work with them quickly to get them started on progesterone,” she said. “So far we’ve had several successful cases with that.”
One Aid for Women location is located right next to a Planned Parenthood Clinic, which has been a benefit in many ways.
“Sometimes people come in to us, and they might even have an abortion scheduled. We had one woman who came in to us, and she had an abortion scheduled an hour later, and she had some time so she sat with one of our advocates and talked through the situation. She ended up not going through with the abortion,” Barrett said. “That happens quite a bit.”
Staff continue to pray for those who work at Planned Parenthood hoping that they have a conversion of heart. And they’ve seen answers to this prayer. Barrett described one occasion where a woman came into that location after just leaving Planned Parenthood for an abortion appointment. A Planned Parenthood employee told the woman that maybe she should go next door and speak to someone at Aid for Women because she wasn’t ready to have the abortion.
“Sometimes things like that happen, so we continue to pray for our neighbors next door and hope they have a change of heart,” Barrett said.
Woman’s New Life Clinic | New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana
At the Woman’s New Life Clinic, which has locations in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, women can receive help and support to decide to choose life for their unborn baby and also essential medical and mental health care they need in the early days of pregnancy.
“We find ourselves to be unique,” said Allison Millet, chief executive officer. “We are a uniquely authentic women’s medical and counseling clinic. We have a special focus on unplanned pregnancy support, but we also have the counseling piece. We provide free pregnancy tests and free ultrasounds, but we have licensed clinical social workers and licensed professional counselors on staff to meet the needs of women.”
The majority of the women that they serve are college age, but they do also see minors coming in and those beyond college years.
“When a woman comes to see us, we want to make sure that her needs are being met, that she is met with love,” Millet said. “We are providing practical, emotional, medical and spiritual services to these women in need.”
They have a special outreach to women trapped in poverty as well.
“We have a focus on both the mother and the unborn baby,” she said.
Woman’s New Life Clinic was founded in 2001 and is inspired by the witness of Sts. John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta. Those two saints inspire the staff and the board in their ministry, Millet said.
Beyond unplanned pregnancy support, the clinic has expanded its service to help women make “life-affirming choices” for themselves and their children.
They offer counseling around post-abortion healing for women and men; counseling for postpartum depression and pregnancy loss. They also offer fertility services in the areas of Fertility Education and Medical Management and the Creighton Method of natural family planning.
In 2019, the clinic hired a women’s health nurse practitioner who provides gynecological care, STI/STD testing, well woman care and prenatal care up to 20 weeks. Women in crisis pregnancies who don’t have a healthcare provider can receive all the care they need at the clinic.
“We want to make sure we encompass all the woman’s needs,” Millet said. “All of these services augment our outreach to abortion-vulnerable women. We want to meet their needs before they find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy. We are successfully doing that.”
Like other women’s centers, the clinic has seen an increase in requests for abortion pill reversals, which the nurse practitioner can provide. In just the last year they have successfully reversed abortions five times.
“There are estimates that say the abortion pill is now taking up about 50 percent of abortions. We’re seeing that upward trend, and we want to make sure we are meeting those needs,” Millet said.
During the pandemic they are seeing women by appointment and via telehealth to help deescalate any crises.
“When COVID started we saw outrageous increases in our call line from women in crisis,” she said.
Women in crisis pregnancies have more needs that go beyond keeping the baby and staying healthy. Some are homeless, have lost jobs, are in domestic abuse situations or other traumatic situations. Helping the child can’t happen if they don’t help the mother, she said.
“We know it’s not just about that precious life she is carrying, but it’s about her precious life and meeting her and taking care of her.”
Millet, who has worked at the clinic for six years, has a sign on the desk in her office that says “My vocation is love.”
“I have believed in the sanctity of all human life, from conception to natural death, my entire life,” she said. “It is my life’s passion. I want to truly help women because I truly, and we all truly, understand this is a vocation for all of us.”
|Locate a pro-life women’s center|
Any Google search and a ZIP code can probably find you the nearest pro-life women’s center to you, but here are two organizations that provide free, searchable lists of centers.
This organization provides a worldwide directory of pro-life women’s centers, clinics and residential homes. According to its website, “Since 1971, Heartbeat has supported, strengthened and started pregnancy help organizations, including pregnancy medical clinics, pregnancy resource centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies all over the world. Currently, Heartbeat serves over 2,800 affiliate locations on all six inhabited continents to provide alternatives to abortion.”
Care Net is dedicated to partnering with independent pregnancy centers and providing them with the resources they need to serve their local communities, states its website. Care Net has a searchable list of its affiliates in the United States and Canada.
Bishop Gallegos Maternity Home | Sacramento, California
In 1992, Bishop Francis Quinn of the Diocese of Sacramento, California, saw a need to provide residential care for pregnant women who were homeless. He reached out to three women from Catholics for Life who helped bring his vision to life in the Bishop Gallegos Maternity Home, which has two locations.
“He approached those women to see if they could start it, and that was nearly 30 years ago,” said Paulette Wyllie, executive director. “We’ve served over 2,000 women and babies.”
Being on the frontlines of the pro-life movement is about not just stopping abortions but helping the mothers, too.
“When people think of the pro-life movement, we automatically think of abortion. But as Catholics we look at the value of life, the broader sense of it,” Wyllie said.
It is also about providing women food and healthcare accessibility, healthy meals and clothing.
“We perform all of the corporal works of mercy as well as the spiritual works of mercy because we also include our prayer, our devotions during the week,” Wyllie said.
Faith is an important component to life at the two homes where they have spiritual devotions five days a week and encourage the residents to reconnect with their own faith tradition, if they have one.
They have even seen some women convert to Catholicism because they receive the Catholic perspective of the faith in the homes.
“We’re a non-denominational home, so we will accept anybody no matter their faith or lack thereof, but we do require them to come to our devotions, which is usually about a 30 minute meeting,” Wyllie said.
When women come to the homes they are very vulnerable.
“Typically they’re in a no-win situation. They’ve depended on or put their trust in people who haven’t been good stewards of their hearts or their love.”
The majority of the women they serve come from a lifetime of being in the foster system, were trafficked or lived a life in prostitution. Many also come in with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, and the home promotes them in their sobriety and connects them with outside partners who specialize in that care.
If the Bishop Gallegos Maternity Homes didn’t exist, the women would be forced to go to family shelters, which are only open overnight.
The homes have 12 beds and eight private rooms. They typically take women in when they are 7 months pregnant, and they stay until the baby is 3 months old, but that is flexible based on the woman’s needs, Wyllie said.
In March, they purchased a former convent and are converting it into transitional living, “because typically [women] are with us for maybe six months, and while that’s a good start, it’s not long enough for them to get a lot of things done, especially when you’re talking about having a baby, recovering and things like that,” Wyllie explained.
They are always working with the women to find the best possible next steps for them and their babies. They will help them with things like obtaining their GEDs if they haven’t graduated from high school and getting social security cards and other documentation they would need to apply for a job.
They also partner with other organizations that come in and give classes to the women on topics like domestic abuse and conflict resolution since many come from backgrounds where abuse was prevalent.
“It is more than stopping abortion. These moms need someone to walk with them sometimes.”
While it might not seem like a lot, it is.
“Really it is the care and compassion and all those things that we are taught in the Gospels that are put into practice to try and help change their lives,” Wyllie said. “To be able to see the transformative love of God in their lives through the people in the ministry is amazing. All we do is love women.”
Columbia Pregnancy Center | Columbia, Maryland
For 40 years, the Columbia Pregnancy Center in Columbia, Maryland, has worked on the frontlines of the pro-life movement saving babies and their mothers.
“One of our mantras here is a pro-life world is where every mother has everything she needs to bring her baby into this world,” said Nancy Vawter, executive director. “I don’t think any woman wants to abort her baby. I think it’s a hard, hard choice, and lots of people feel backed into a corner and they feel like that’s their only solution.”
When COVID-19 shut things down in March of 2020, the center closed for three weeks but continued their education programs online and working with women by phone.
“We’re here to walk with them, journey with them and help them see that we can help them move beyond their obstacles,” Vawter said of the women they serve.
They offer all around help in whatever way the mothers who come to them need. Like many centers they provide pregnancy and STI testing and sonograms, but they go a few steps further.
If the mom and baby need Medicaid, they will connect them with local Catholic hospitals that will help them enroll. If the baby’s dad is not supportive of the pregnancy, they have a men’s program that will work with them and help them find their role as fathers. If the fathers won’t cooperate, staff remind them they are legally responsible to support the child. And if a woman has had an abortion, like many other centers, they offer post-abortion healing programs.
“We try very hard to practice our options counseling where we’re really good at walking through the different options for women so they are informed,” she said. “One of the things we like to say is that ‘You know, the blueprint for this baby’s life was created at conception. The DNA is there. … And you have been given this beautiful gift of life.'”
The staff at Columbia Pregnancy Center believe every life is sacred and intended by God. Because of that they try to move the women past their fears and obstacles and get them to a place where they can wrap support around them and make them stronger.
“We just try to tell women all of the time, ‘You can do it. You can do this. You are strong. You are capable,'” Vawter said.
Women return to them regularly saying keeping their baby was the best decision they ever made.
“We don’t have women come back saying, ‘I’m so glad I didn’t have that baby,'” Vawter said.
Offering material support in the form of things like diapers, wipes, car seats and cribs can help take away some of the fear they have of raising a child. Last year, they received $45,000 worth of in-kind donations to support the women they serve.
“Poverty is a huge obstacle for lots of women,” Vawter said. “The fear that they won’t have what they need for that baby. To some extent it’s a small token. If you don’t have a place to live, then having diapers and clothing is a small token of your problem. But nonetheless it is meaningful to know that some place in the community supports them.”
Two years ago the center started a mom-to-mom support group in English and Spanish, which has been a tremendous success, she said. They don’t advertise it, but the moms flock to it and have formed friendships of support from it.
Because they are seeing more and more Latino women come in for help, the center hired a Spanish-speaking counselor. These women come in hurt and vulnerable, Vawter said.
“The stories that they [our Latino moms] tell us are just horrific. Rape. Torture. Homelessness. You just would not believe the depth of the sorrow of these women. We feel it’s an honor to love them.”
As the women receive help the staff say they can physically see them getting stronger.
“They come to us meek, and beaten and downtrodden,” she said. “A year or two later, they are these blossoming, whole people. That to me is as much as it means to be pro-life as it is to save babies.”
|Abortion pill reversals|
|More than one-third of abortions in the U.S. occur through the abortion pill, according to the pro-life group Heartbeat International. Pro-life women’s centers and clinics across the country are on the frontlines helping women reverse the effects of the pill, when possible, but time is of the essence.
The abortion pill involves taking two drugs. The first, mifepristone, makes life in the womb uninhabitable for the baby. Known as RU-486, it was developed in the 1980s and became available in the United States in 2000.
The second drug, misoprostol, is taken up to 48 hours after the first drug. This drug causes the woman’s body to expel the unborn baby and any other related tissue. It’s not an easy process to go through.
But for women who change their mind after taking the first pill, hope is available, and pro-life women’s centers and clinics are on the frontlines offering this hope in the form of abortion pill reversals.
They can receive a large dose of progesterone that reverses the effects of mifepristone. At the centers we talked to, they’ve been successful in reversing the effects of the abortion pill in most cases when women reached out in time.
For more information, visit abortionpillreversal.com/.