But the heart of the organization, Bagatta cheerily explained, is its counseling. Indeed, the vast majority of the program's state funds go to counseling services, according to invoices obtained by CP. "We're paying for speech," explains Bagatta. "An alternative to abortion is not a pamphlet. It's another person."
Who are these people, exactly?
More than 500 Real Alternatives counselors work throughout Pennsylvania in 97 anti-abortion sites, which include crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes, adoption agencies and social-service agencies. (Comparatively, there are 20 abortion clinics in the state.) The vast majority of these Real Alternatives locations are Christian-affiliated agencies. The state contracts with Real Alternatives, and then Real Alternatives subcontracts the counseling work to these sites.
These counselors, of course, meet with women privately. But what happens behind those closed doors is not, thanks to documents obtained by CP, a mystery. According to the 2010-12 agreement between Real Alternatives and the state's Public Welfare department, the counselors are contractually required to "maintain a pro-life mission" and "agree not to promote, refer or counsel abortion nor abortifacients as an option" — not even, apparently, to women whose lives are at risk because of their pregnancy. Counselors also must "understand" that their centers are paid not "for the provision, referral or advocacy of contraceptive services, drugs or devices." And they must teach women that abstinence is the "best and only" way of avoiding unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Unlike counselors recognized by the National Board for Certified Counselors, who must have a master's degree, the Real Alternatives "counselors" are not required to have any degree at all. He defends this choice, arguing that, "We don't provide medical services. We provide human services."
In addition to their state-mandated requirements of never mentioning abortion as an option and teaching that abstinence in the "best and only" means of preventing pregnancy or STDs, Real Alternatives counselors often tell pregnant women about the "risks" of abortion. These include claims that it causes depression, infertility and breast cancer — information Bagatta calls "facts" that "women need to know" — but which have been deemed untrue by the American Psychological Association, and the Guttmacher and National Cancer institutes, respectively.
"This is a group out to discourage abortion even if they have to lie to people," remarks Democratic state Rep. Babette Josephs, an abortion-rights advocate. "And a panicked, pregnant teenager is likely to readily believe them."
This counseling, it turns out, is not cheap to taxpayers: In the past year, CP has found, the state paid out $4.5 million for counseling services provided by Real Alternatives — including a whopping $63 for every hour of anti-abortion counseling. Comparatively, through Medicaid, it costs the state $20 an hour for a woman to undergo a health screening at a family-planning center, which includes STD testing, a Pap smear and a breast exam, and which is usually performed by a nurse practitioner with an advanced degree. Also through Medicaid, the state reimburses psychologists with doctorates $39 for almost an hour of psychotherapy.
Other CP findings include how much it has cost the state for Real Alternatives to run its hot line 888-LIFE-AID, which receives an average of fewer than two calls a day (at least $28,000 to $40,000 annually, depending on the year); Bagatta's annual salary, including benefits, according to recent tax records ($199,000, though that includes private donations and consulting fees from other anti-abortion, government-funded programs throughout the U.S.); and how much it has cost the state, since July 2008, for Real Alternatives to print "information and training materials," including the pictured brochure "Milestones of Early Life" ($12,000).
Despite its peculiar costs, the program has gone relatively unquestioned by lawmakers and state officials. During the Auditor General's recent damning investigations into the Public Welfare department, it was never audited.
Anti-abortion advocates, like Republican state Rep. Matt Baker, argue that the funds for Real Alternatives are warranted, noting, "The program has served over 189,431 women the last 16 and half years — and that number does not count the babies!"
Others, like Josephs, call the funding levels "shocking" and "wasteful."
However much opponents dislike funding Real Alternatives with taxpayer dollars, there has always been a silver lining: The gentleman's agreement ensured that as long as anti-abortion programs got state dollars, family-planning services would enjoy the same.
Only it's not clear, even as Real Alternatives enjoys almost unheard-of protection in the budget, whether the deal is still being honored on the other side.
For years, as Real Alternatives grew in size, so, too, did family-planning services in Pennsylvania. When Real Alternatives got $4.3 million in state funds in 1999, family-planning services received the same amount; when Real Alternatives got $5.5 million in state funds in 2005, family planning got that, too; and so on.
But that changed in 2008, when, according to lawmakers on both sides of the abortion debate, the state government revised the way it channeled federal dollars to family-planning services. Suddenly, it wasn't so easy to determine if the deal was being honored — and this year, according to Frankel, the Corbett administration made matters even worse. "One of the techniques this administration utilized was, in my view, hiding some of the cuts by collapsing different line items" in budget documents, Frankel says.
In fact, no one — from the state's Public Welfare department to lawmakers to budget analysts to abortion-rights groups — could tell CP exactly how much state funding will go to family-planning services this year, which has led some to speculate that the deal "is dead," as Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney of the Women's Law Project, put it recently.
Indeed, family-planning providers are closing their doors across the state. In the past year-and-a-half, six Planned Parenthood sites in Pennsylvania have shut down, according to Planned Parenthood's Steinberg. "It's a tragedy," she says of women's decreased access to services like Pap smears and STD screenings in those areas. "It's like taking a two-by-four to poor women."
In the meantime, Bagatta is hustling to bring in even more state funds to Real Alternatives. In the meeting with CP, Bagatta suggested that Real Alternatives deserves not just $5.8 million this year, but $6.7 million.
Turning to right-hand man Thomas Lang, Bagatta allowed himself a momentary fantasy: "Can you imagine what we would look like with $20 million a year?" he asked.
"There would be no abortions!"