The State's Alternative to Abortion Program
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2010

Most North Dakotans have probably not heard of the state’s alternative-to-abortion services program, but it is making a difference in the lives of hundreds of women and their unborn children.

Shepherded through the legislature in 2005 by former state senator Aaron Krauter with bipartisan support, the program confronts the culture of death by giving financial assistance to the pregnancy centers, adoption agencies, and maternity homes that provide life-affirming alternatives to abortion. In 2009 the legislature appropriated $400,000 to the program for the biennium. That is small change in the state’s budget, but it is enough to make an impact.

Rather than granting all the money to a single agency, the program reimburses numerous agencies at a fee-for-service basis. The program reimburses only nongovernmental agencies that provide “services that promote childbirth instead of abortion by providing information, counseling, and support services that assist pregnant women or women who believe they may be pregnant to choose childbirth and to make informed decisions regarding the choice of adoption or parenting with respect to their children.” The state also requires that providers cannot provide, or refer or counsel for, abortions. Friends of Planned Parenthood need not apply.

Currently thirteen agencies provide abortion alternative services including Catholic Charities North Dakota, St. Gianna’s Maternity Home, and First Choice Clinic. Somewhat intentionally, the state funding does not cover the cost of services provided by these agencies. The legislature wanted to assist, not fully subsidize, the agencies. Legislators expressed hope that with additional financial support these centers could improve and expand their existing services.

That is happening. For example, the funding has allowed Fargo’s First Choice Clinic to open additional sites in Devil’s Lake and Bismarck as well as improve and enhance its advertising efforts.

One of the great features of the program is that it does not impose a single philosophy on the participating agencies. Providers can be faith-based or secular. They can operate on a social service model, a counseling model, or a medical model - although direct medical services are not reimbursed. They can also specialize to meet particular needs or certain populations. Some providers specialize in helping women with their immediate concerns, some focus on providing adoption services, and others provide shelter and education during a pregnancy. This plurality of providers reflects the fact that saving unborn lives requires working with women one-by-one and that women come from a variety of backgrounds and have varying needs.

The number of women helped by the program has increased each year since its implementation. Last year, providers served over 600 women and the number is expected to increase again this year.

Despite these early accomplishments challenges remain. For one thing, the success of the program depends on getting women to the providers. The state appropriated money during the last legislative session specifically for an outreach program. Whether that effort will work remains to be seen.

Changes in federal policies might also jeopardize the program. Currently, the program is funded entirely though the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant from the federal government. Changes in the federal law or the rules implementing the block grant could threaten the state’s ability to use federal dollars for this effort.

Finally, abortion proponents have become increasingly more hostile to the work of pro-life pregnancy centers and have launched an aggressive campaign to discredit and defund their work. Abortion forces claim the centers engage in deceitful tactics. The claims rarely turn out to be true, but perceptions, not reality, can carry great weight in political matters.

Currently, however, this little-known partnership between the state government and the private sector provides an important tool in building a culture of life. It deserves our support.