June 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman

Legislature OKs $800K for abortion alternatives in new budget

The Michigan Legislature won’t fix the roads. It hasn’t shown much interest in the state’s shockingly high rate of unplanned pregnancy, and infant and maternal death, especially in Detroit.

Yet this month, it approved an $800,000 contract in the 2014-15 budget “to promote childbirth,” alternatives to abortion and abstinence education at crisis pregnancy centers.

The no-bid contract goes solely to Real Alternatives Inc., a Pennsylvania nonprofit that helps anti-abortion, mostly faith-based centers comply with separation of church and state regulations and receive government funding.

The firm seeks out Michigan pregnancy centers that oppose abortion and the use of birth control pills and that counsel women to choose adoption or birth in unplanned pregnancies. Theoretically, state dollars will pass through Real Alternatives to reimburse the Michigan centers for diapers, baby furniture and counseling services.

That didn’t happen last year, however. Real Alternatives failed to see a single client or sign up one Michigan provider during the first eight months of the $700,000 contract, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health. Although Real Alternatives says it recently signed three providers, MDCH is unaware of them. The state has so far paid Real Alternatives less than $40,000 for expenses out of the $700,000 contract ending Sept. 30.

“Because they’ve had difficulty getting providers on board, we do have concerns about the effectiveness of this program. We are looking at ways we can improve the reports we receive from them,” said Angela Minicuci, MDCH spokeswoman.

Kevin Bagatta, Real Alternatives’ executive director since 1994, did not return calls for comment. A staffer said he was on vacation and could not be reached.

Despite its dubious track record here, the Legislature handed Real Alternatives a $100,000 raise in the 2014-15 budget. The bill’s chief legislative backer, Sen. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, said in an emailed statement that Real Alternatives “has had over 25 years of success in counseling women ... and helping to lower abortion rates.”

While the overall dollars budgeted are small in terms of the budget, Real Alternatives’ new $800,000 contract is roughly equal to state spending for pregnancy prevention and family planning services in 2014-15. A separate state program called Plan First — which provided medical care, including family planning, for low-income women — ends June 30, and some of those women will lose access to those services.

The Real Alternatives contract is one small line item in a multibillion-dollar budget that many legislators may not have even noticed. State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, did notice it. Although Irwin voted for the budget, he is troubled by the contract.

“We all want to reduce unplanned pregnancy and abortion, but my conservative colleagues don’t want to talk about contraception, about what works,” he said. “They want to talk about using state resources to advance their religious ideologies.”

Gov. Rick Snyder has not yet signed the budget bill.

While the Michigan Catholic Conference was a major supporter of the Real Alternatives Inc. contract, Christian pregnancy centers have distanced themselves from the program.

Two Detroit area centers randomly contacted were familiar with Real Alternatives but had not signed up.

“There are stipulations that restrict your ability to share your faith with clients ... and we didn’t want to do that,” said Laura Farrugia, director at CareNet, a Berkley pregnancy center.

Farrugia and Tim Stickel, executive director at Crossroads Pregnancy Center in Auburn Hills, said they would have to separate prayer and Bible studies from other services to work with Real Alternatives.

Ed Rivet, legislative director of Right to Life of Michigan, which supported the Real Alternatives contract, says he’s “sorry to hear that the Real Alternatives program is not taking hold based on the religious issues.”

“Given that religious freedom is already under serious attack when it comes to matters of contraception and pregnancy, I understand their reluctance to partially mute their sense of mission,” he said.

The Republicans in the Legislature insist they’re not waging a war against women. But family planning experts say the $800,000 appropriation serves political ends, not public health needs.

“Both the governor and Mayor (Mike) Duggan have made commitments to reducing the unintended pregnancy and infant mortality rates,” says Lori Lamerand, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan. “Putting $800,000 toward this program doesn’t do that.”

The Legislature is promoting childbirth to low-income women in crisis while under-funding the safety social net and tamping down access to contraception. That’s a prescription more likely to undermine single-parent families than help them thrive.

Prayers, propaganda and a year’s supply of diapers will not pay child care costs or medical bills. The mostly Republican legislators trying to defend their sincere interest in women’s health and well-being might first seek real alternatives to their own skewed budget priorities.

lberman@detroitnews.com