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You would think that the crisis over clerical abuse roiling the Catholic Church for the past few years would be an “all hands on deck” moment in terms of the resources and attention of the Catholic hierarchy. You would also think that given the revelations about predatory behavior reaching to the very highest levels of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the systemic misogyny of the church’s leadership, which last week prompted the entire staff of the Vatican women’s magazine to resign, the hierarchy might back down on its insistence that contraception and abortion were to blame for many of society’s ills and turn its attention inward.
You would be wrong.
Apparently the Catholic hierarchy still has time to find ways to attempt to undercut access to birth control and abortion. As the New York Times reported last Friday, the Trump administration is funneling $5.1 million in federal Title X family planning funding to a Southern California-based chain of faith-based anti-choice medical clinics called Obria. Obria is the more millennial-friendly name given to the former Birth Choice crisis pregnancy centers founded by Kathleen Eaton Bravo, a Catholic woman who pioneered the idea of creating a “medical model” corporate-sounding anti-abortion clinic to siphon money away from Planned Parenthood.
The Obria clinics keep the features of crisis pregnancy centers, including the lure of free or low-cost pregnancy testing and ultrasounds, which lure women with unintended pregnancy in the door to hear a pitch about the horrors and dangers of abortion, but add just enough primary care services—STD testing, prenatal care, and well-women visits—to qualify for Medicaid and some private insurance reimbursement, and now, with the aid of the Trump administration, actual Title X family planning funding.
The Obria Group has been growing by leaps and bounds—from six clinics in 2006 to 36 affiliates today with a goal of 200 clinics by 2020. It describes its mission statement as “Being led by God, we offer medical services pertaining to primary care, pregnancy and reproductive health, including education and support for marriage and family, consistent with the inherent value of every human life.”
To date, much of Obria’s growth has been fueled by donations—some $25 million over 20 years, according to the Times. According to tax filings, Obria has received some $3 million in backing from organizations the Times rather cryptically labels as “allies of the Catholic Church” and “groups associated with the Catholic Church.” In fact, according to tax filings, Obria received $2.5 million from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and another $500,000 from the bishop of Orange Country, CA.
Calling the USCCB and a Catholic bishop “groups associated with the Catholic Church” is like calling Mike Pence a “man associated with the Trump administration.” The Catholic bishops are the leadership of the Catholic Church. They, along with the Catholic people, comprise the church, but only the bishops decide how the church’s money is spent and what its priorities are.
These grants appear to be recent. The USCCB website lists one grant to Obria for $500,000 through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in 2016.
The Title X funding, which is being stripped from four Planned Parenthood affiliates that provide abortion services, will go to seven Obria-affiliated clinics in Southern California. Three of the clinics, those owned directly by Obria, don’t provide any contraceptives, according to USA Today. The Obria website doesn’t list contraception or family planning counseling as a service provided at its clinics. The only publicly available information about contraceptives provided under its “Health Information” tab is labeled “Birth Control Side Effects.”
The Health Information section does praise Natural Family Planning (NFP) and claims it can have an effectiveness of up to 90% if used correctly, although correct use of NFP is highly user dependent, which makes it a dicey proposition for the young adult population Obria claims to cater to. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fertility awareness-based methods of family planning have a failure rate of 24% and are among the least effective means of birth control.
Diverting federal family planning funding to natural family planning (in keeping with the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception promulgated through the Humanae Vitae encyclical) is a long-time goal of the USCCB and the Vatican. Going as far back as the Reagan administration, some $2 million was diverted from the U.S. Agency for International Development to promote the NFP agenda of the Family of the America Foundation.
More recently, Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley, chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, voiced support for federal measures that would divert funding from Planned Parenthood to organizations like Obria, “so women can obtain their health care from providers that do not promote abortion.”
Of course, Obria is an anti-choice organization merely masquerading as a provider to entice unaware patients and capture federal funds that would otherwise go to full-service reproductive health providers. As Planned Parenthood President Dr. Leana Wen noted in a tweet, “Crisis pregnancy centers are not health centers. If the administration gets its way, Title X—our nation’s dedicated program for affordable birth control & reproductive healthcare—will be dismantled, leaving millions of people without access to healthcare.”