The Supreme Court’s landmark decision overturning Roe v. Wade has set the stage for a major test of public and private pregnancy support programs that abortion rights opponents have touted for decades.
“This is not the moment to celebrate. I'm not celebrating,” said Archbishop William Lori, the top American Catholic leading the church’s campaign for alternatives to abortion. “This is a moment for steadiness, for staying the course, for increased compassion, for increased services.”
Maternity homes and crisis pregnancy resource centers – offering everything from housing support to free diapers -- are expecting a surge of demand in states enacting strict new bans on abortion. The Catholic Church is one of the leading backers of a national pregnancy aid network.
“Our major focus is woman and child. Not only do we provide services, we are robust advocates for the poor, needy and vulnerable,” Lori said.
Critics say the church is dangerously ill-equipped and unprepared. In the 13 states with trigger laws enacted to ban abortions after Roe was overturned, more than 103,000 were performed in 2020 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I don’t think they have reckoned with what the ramifications are going to be in a post-Roe world," Jamie Manson, president for Catholics for Choice, told ABC News. "The amount of care and social work and life skill training that these women need is massive."
Since SB8 banned nearly all abortions in Texas beginning in September 2021, 84,000 women have signed up with a state-funded program "Alternatives to Abortion" aimed at supporting women who continue unwanted pregnancies, according to the Texas Health and Human Services.
Texas Catholic aid programs are also seeing an impact.
"We have a wait list now. We're already trying to gear up and make sure that we can meet the current need in addition to any increase that we might see," said Kasey Whitley, who oversees the Gabriel Project in Ft. Worth, a church-funded ministry for women in crisis pregnancies.
The diocese helped 175 women last year. Kexsy Villeda, a single mom who found out she was unexpectedly pregnant the day she got divorced, said the program provided her with emotional support and financial stability.
"I looked at my son, and I couldn't. No," she said of briefly contemplating abortion five months into her pregnancy.
Kathleen Wilson, director of Mary's Shelter in Fredericksburg, Va., a Catholic-funded organization helping women with unintended or unwanted pregnancies, told ABC News she's expanding capacity this summer because of a steady stream of women in need.
The Catholic Church is the nation’s largest single religious institution with 18,000 local parishes. Its leaders have long promised women in crisis pregnancies unconditional emotional and financial aid well into motherhood, if they carry their child to term.
“The church is not just about bans. In fact, that’s not our major focus,” Lori said. A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could not provide a dollar figure for how much the Church spends on pregnancy support each year nationwide.
Catholic abortion rights advocates say allowing a woman to terminate her pregnancy should be a matter of conscience and social justice. And, many argue, efforts to dissuade women from abortion involve misleading claims about long-term support.
"Forced motherhood is never a good thing. And to deny someone what is for them, essential care, is wrong. I think it’s a sin," Manson said.
The American Public Health Association, in a brief to the Supreme Court last year, said that abortion bans will lead to “elevated risks of maternal mortality….infant mortality…[and] traumas …[that can] trigger inter-generational harm.”
“Look at the big picture. Since Roe v. Wade, it’s been 63 million abortions. That’s a lot. A lot of loss of life,” Lori said when asked about the analysis. “The answer is to provide the best medical care we can.”
Critics of the Church and other faith-based initiatives opposing abortion say they prioritize bans over lobbying for expansion of social programs that support life, like a higher minimum wage, nutrition assistance, and paid family leave.
The 14 states that have had the most restrictive abortion laws, including Texas, invest the least in policies and programs for women and children, according to a 2020 analysis by the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund, a social policy think tank.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the generosity either of the charities or services we provide, or of God’s people,” Lori said. "The church in Texas is stepping up to the plate. They've kind of, again, given us a preview and I think a very helpful preview of what’s to come.”