Say I found out I was pregnant — I didn't mean to be, and I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do about it.
I see an ad on the Internet, maybe, or in a newspaper for an organization called Real Alternatives. The ad promises "free pregnancy support services" and lists a hot-line number, 888-LIFE-AID, which I call.
Someone on the other end refers me to a social-service agency in Philadelphia — which is one of dozens across Pennsylvania, all of which are part of a network that receives state funding.
On a recent, asphalt-bubbling hot day, I go. I tell a receptionist at the agency that I'm expecting — even though, in truth, I'm not.
The receptionist says a "counselor" will speak with me over the phone, and leads me into a private room. I tell the woman on the other end that I'm considering an abortion, mostly because I'm young and not yet financially secure. She is tender but stern. She says that if I have an abortion, "Psychologically, you're never going to forget. You're taking a life."
She tells me that abortion often leads to depression — a claim that has been refuted by the American Psychological Association, which concluded in 2008 that a single abortion is "not a threat to women's mental health," and in fact, poses no greater a risk than delivering a baby.
She also informs me that "proven facts" show that abortion can "interfere with having other children," another theory rejected by medical science. The Guttmacher Institute reported in 2007 that the "overwhelming scientific consensus" is that an early abortion "poses virtually no long-term risk of infertility."
Before we part ways, she reminds me again, "Whatever decision you make is going to be with you for the rest of your life."
"Counseling" like this (some call it advocacy) is administered across Pennsylvania, all by one organization: Real Alternatives, a staunch and vocally anti-abortion nonprofit whose stated mission is to show women that "childbirth is a viable alternative to having to submit to an abortion that they really do not want in the first place."
Groups like Real Alternatives exist throughout the country, mostly funded by anti-abortion organizations like Heartbeat International and individual donations. Real Alternatives, though, is funded almost entirely by the state of Pennsylvania — financed, that is, by you, the taxpayer, and it has received tens of millions of dollars since 1997.
Just this summer, the Pennsylvania legislature doled out $5.8 million to Real Alternatives, which is not a penny less than last year, giving the organization a special distinction indeed. In a year that saw huge slashes to the state budget — including cuts in AIDS pharmaceutical services, an 18 percent loss in the operating budget of the Department of Environmental Protection, and $1 billion eliminated from schools, among many other cuts — Real Alternatives' budget was left untouched.
In fact, its state funding increased this year by 4 percent.
That money, City Paper has found, goes to pay for part of the $199,000 salary (including benefits) of the CEO of Real Alternatives, who has no medical experience. It also funds an army of hundreds of "counselors," non-medically-qualified personnel whose job it is to dispense the organization's (sometimes outright inaccurate) information — and who, despite lacking the credentials of nurse practitioners or psychologists, cost the state much more per hour for their services than either.
"These aren't counselors," says Democratic state Rep. Dan Frankel. "They are single-issue, anti-abortion activists. They are no different than those folks who carry placards outside of Magee hospital in my district to try to intimidate abortion clinics."
To be sure, in Pennsylvania, state funding goes to organizations on both sides of the debate over abortion. But those organizations that do advocate for abortion rights, like family-planning centers, receive no money for abortions and use state funds only for a slew of medical services, including breast cancer screenings, Pap smears and STD screenings.
Real Alternatives does none of those things. Rather it is, quite proudly, a massive, statewide anti-abortion information campaign. And you're paying for it.
Pennsylvania's generous relationship with Real Alternatives was born out of a compromise.
It was the 1990s, and then-Gov. Robert Casey — who's since been dubbed the "father of pro-life Democrats" — was running the show in Pennsylvania. During his tenure, Casey sparred with President Bill Clinton over abortion issues, was sued by Planned Parenthood, and ultimately tightened the state's abortion policies, even winning some ground before the U.S. Supreme Court. "This is a guy who had fiscal conservatives proudly putting his sign in their front yards," fondly recalls Edel Finnigan, executive director of the Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Since the '60s, hundreds of centers throughout the U.S. have sought to persuade pregnant women not to have abortions, but their work hadn't ever previously been funded by the states. The idea was too controversial: The centers faced bold opposition by the abortion-rights movement and had been called deceptive by the North Dakota Supreme Court, the Texas Attorney General and the Federal Centers for Disease Control.
But Casey, by alternatively wooing anti-abortion Democrats and threatening to cut funding for family-planning services, managed to get a deal struck: For every dollar in the state budget that went to family-planning services, like contraceptives, breast exams and Pap smears, a dollar would go to anti-abortion programs — like Real Alternatives. It was a gentleman's agreement: never put on paper but nonetheless honored like a sacred decree for years.
That's not to say everyone was happy with the arrangement: Dayle Steinberg, president of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania, says it has "always been completely unfair because they're not providing medical services, and we are."
In the wake of this deal, one problem quickly became apparent: The network of anti-abortion programs the state wanted to fund didn't actually exist here. And so the state itself contracted to create it, essentially, from scratch.
In 1995, a 33-year-old man named Kevin Bagatta, who hailed from Long Island, N.Y., answered a newspaper ad seeking a director for a new, state-funded network of crisis pregnancy centers and other anti-abortion agencies. His qualifications: a law degree and a background in government contracting, as well as time in the Air Force, where he was "in charge of nuclear weapons," he said in an interview with City Paper. But Bagatta had no experience at all working in medical or social services.
Still, he landed the job. And in 1997, Real Alternatives opened its doors.
Bagatta, now 49, met with CP recently at the Harrisburg headquarters of Real Alternatives. He has salt-and-pepper hair and is built like a football player. The headquarters' walls are decorated with a Pennsylvania state flag and posters documenting various stages of fetal development. Throughout the meeting, Bagatta spoke passionately of the need for the program. Real Alternatives, he believes, "represents the best in America." It is also "the only program in the state that provides a positive approach to a controversial issue," he said. "You know what that's called? A solution!"
Via a PowerPoint presentation, Bagatta proudly explained that Real Alternatives is revolutionary. In the '90s, it became the first program of its kind in the country to be funded by state dollars, making Pennsylvania revolutionary, too.
Since then, Real Alternatives has grown exponentially. During its first year, the statewide organization received about $2 million in annual public funds, and about 7,440 women visited it. Now it has a $5.8 million state budget and locations in nearly every part of the state, from Erie to Pittsburgh to Oil City to here in Philadelphia, where there are nine sites. In the past year, more than 18,000 women in Pennsylvania utilized its services. In 2005, Real Alternatives even consulted Texas on its fledgling anti-abortion program, on which it now spends about $4 million (a Texan flag now hangs in Real Alternatives' headquarters).