As a pregnancy center with a uniquely strategic location—directly across the street from the only surgical abortion facility in the state—the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center is planning to leverage its location even more by adding a mobile ultrasound unit to service women throughout the community.
Plans for the mobile ultrasound unit, which the center hopes hits the road by the end of 2017, were developed to ensure the center is able to meet needs in the community, regardless of location.
“We lease our building,” Nicole Lashbrook, executive director of the Little Rock-based center, said. “If the abortion clinic ever moves or closes, we still want to be available to women in the community. Before they even consider it, we want to be there.”
Lashbrook and her organization are launching the mobile effort in partnership with Save the Storks, which works with pregnancy help organizations across the U.S. to put buses on the road that are equipped with ultrasound.
With 20 Stork buses on the road so far and another 20 in the works, Lashbrook is looking forward to helping close the distance between pro-life professionals and the women who most need them.
Along from Save the Storks, a growing number of centers have taken their ultrasound services to the streets, including 38 mobile units through ICU Mobile, and another 40-plus organizations that have designed and deployed their own units.
A lawsuit was nowhere on Tiffany Staman’s radar when she joined Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford as executive director back in 2014.
But, two years later, that’s exactly where Staman and her center find themselves, as named plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner challenging his ratification of a law this summer that attempts to force pro-life pregnancy centers like Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford to refer for abortions.
Rewriting the state’s Healthcare Right of Conscience Act to compel as many as 150 pregnancy help locations (the law’s broad language leaves its scope undefined) to keep an updated list of local abortion providers available to clients upon request, Democrats passed the bill on a party-line vote before Gov. Rauner—a Republican—signed it into law at the end of July.
Just days after the law—set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2017—was signed, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit in state court, representing Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford, as well as another pregnancy help organization, Aid for Women, and a life-affirming ob-gyn.
“I really like to stand for what I’m for, not what I’m against,” Staman said. “I tend to be more of a bridge-builder than a wall-erector. I'm constantly trying to engage in dialogue with people who might have a different opinion or might see things differently.”
While Staman and her center, along with their fellow plaintiffs, await the next steps in the lawsuit, ADF also filed suit in a federal court, representing National Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), along with three more Illinois pregnancy help centers and an ob-gyn.
Amid the challenge in the courts to what ADF argues is a “classic example of compelled speech in violation of… Free Speech rights as protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Heartbeat International—a network of over 2,000 pregnancy help organizations to which Pregnancy Care Center belongs—has urged its Illinois affiliates to refuse to comply with the law.
“We're not fueled by anger; we're not fueled by hate,” Staman said. “We just feel this infringes on what we do and how we do it. It's not just, and so we have to take a stand.”
A History of Helping
For 33 years, Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford has bypassed politics and focused on reaching out to women and men dealing with unplanned pregnancies. They provide free services such as pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea (for which Illinois has the nation’s 10th-highest rate), post-abortion care, community referrals, mentoring and education.
The center’s proactive Positive Choices team has accepted invitations to work with nine different public middle and high schools’ health classes and girls’ groups. Staman’s staff works to “challenge teens to make wise choices so they don't ever have to come into our center and use our services,” she said, pointing out that over 1,200 students have participated in 130 presentations so far in 2016.
Among the abortion-minded and abortion-vulnerable clients who come into their offices or visit their Stork Bus, over 80 percent have decided to carry their babies to term, thanks to the center’s life-affirming message.
Now, the concern is that the newly authorized requirements both to refer for abortions and counsel as to the so-called “benefits” of abortion would compromise their life-saving message.
“Though 49 percent of the clients that come into our center say that they're considering abortion or they're planning an abortion, they're not asking us where to go,” Staman said. “They aren't asking for a referral. This generation is on their phone; they Google, they know. So for the state to say we have to refer when it's not even being asked of us—that’s all the more frustrating.
“That violates our foundation and our freedom,” Staman said. “Not only is it a violation, but it sends a very confusing message to our clients.”
Like a similar law in California that compels pro-life pregnancy medical clinics offering free ultrasounds to refer patients to a county social services agency for state-covered abortions, the Illinois law only goes one way. Abortion clinics in the state have no such requirement to refer or offer information for life-saving services—even at the request of a patient.
“It felt as though this law was targeting only pro-life organizations and individuals,” Staman said. “There's an injustice there, in that we're clearly being targeted to abide by a law that other options in this conversation are not being required to.”
Working While Waiting
While they wait to see how their lawsuit will proceed, Pregnancy Care Center is not sitting still. The center has experienced significant changes in recent months—consolidating multiple locations into one site and adding a mobile ultrasound unit through Save the Storks.
Until midway through 2016, Pregnancy Care Center operated two part-time facilities for more than a decade—a strategy that changed with the addition of the Stork Bus.
“We thought that to be the best stewards of our resources, it was be beneficial to have one central building in the community and launch our Stork Bus which has allowed us to travel into several areas of the community to serve our clients,” Liz Feehan, who works on staff with Pregnancy Care Center, said.
Fundraising for a new Stork Bus began at the center’s October 2015 banquet. As Staman took her seat following her announcement of their plans, a donor promised $50,000. By December, the remaining funds had come in and Save the Storks delivered their bus—before the center knew what to do with it.
They learned quickly. In April of 2016, the fully manned Stork Bus hit the road. It now travels Monday through Wednesday, to locations in Rockford, Belvidere, and Machesney.
Changing locations also came about more rapidly than anyone expected.
“We were approached about our west side facility by another non-profit who wanted to purchase it; we never even had to list it for sale,” Staman said. “Without even looking for another location, a community realtor approached us about a building that had sat empty for years.”
“We sold one and bought another, debt-free, and we were able to move from both part-time locations into one much larger facility and remain debt-free in the process,” Staman said.
In June the Pregnancy Care Center opened its newly remodeled office at 4108 Morsay Drive.
The new building, a former salon and spa, once won architectural awards. Now, its updated rooms allow for expanded educational classes and office space for the growing staff that includes a mobile unit director and an additional ultrasound nurse to make sure every client visiting the center has the chance to see her preborn child via sonogram.
“It's just been a whirlwind of a year,” Staman said. “I'm amazed at God's grace, because we were focusing on these external things and yet we had a 29 percent increase in distinct clients, and a 22 percent increase in overall client visits. And a 95 percent increase in ultrasounds. That was all in the last 12 months while all this was going on.”
Adding to the turbulence of this period, news of their lawsuit in early August has stirred up some harassment on social media.
True to form, Staman reached out to build bridges, responding to a string of negative online reviews and referrals to local abortion clinics with an offer to meet up and listen. So far, no one has taken her up on her offer.
“I don't think they know how to respond to a posture of love and grace and my saying, ‘I'd love to meet you for coffee and talk more about why you feel this way and how you came to this place,’” Staman said.
Certainty in Uncertainty
With the lawsuit pending, and the specific statutes of the law still to be spelled out, Illinois pregnancy centers face a great deal of uncertainty. But one thing seems certain: Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford will not close its doors.
“That's the one thing we feel God's not asking us to do, because then we know we’d have no voice in the people’s lives at all,” Staman said. “We have no opportunity to show the love and grace of God if we're not even here and present. We're seeing God use the center in such a profound way and seeing lives change before our eyes.”
Serving 1,700 clients a year means the center is reaching a majority of Winnebago County’s estimated number of women with unexpected pregnancies. That’s a number and a ratio Staman and her team are praying continues to grow.
“We’re asking questions like, ‘Are we really affecting life change as much as possible?’” Staman said. “What do we do with clients who continue to use our services over and over, or don't make better choices? How do we help serve them more holistically than getting them to carry and parent and getting them through pregnancy? Can our reach be a bigger reach into their lives than what we're doing now?”
Based on recent history, the answers to those questions could launch big changes moving forward.
“Considering the opportunity and increasing impact, we felt God was calling our ministry to add a mobile ultrasound unit,” Lashbrook said. “So, we developed a plan and began to pray.”
Soon after the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center team began the initial stages of planning and praying, Fellowship Bible Church of Little Rock gifted the center $100,000 toward the purchase of the mobile unit.
“The pastor of Fellowship Bible Church had attended our banquet and led us in prayer for the past few years,” Lashbrook said. “The church wanted to tithe into the community, and we wanted to grow our ministry—God aligned the timing of our goals for the perfect partnership.”
“We’re incredibly thankful for the generous gift from Fellowship Bible Church,” she said. “Much work is ahead to make this dream a reality. We’re relying on our planning and God’s goodness to make the mobile unit come to fruition.”
With contracts to sign, staffing to hire and additional funds to raise, implementing a mobile ultrasound unit is no easy task for a pregnancy center already offering a full docket of services, including free ultrasound, STI and pregnancy testing, a parenting program, sexual integrity program and more.
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Serving families in the community since 1987, the center was founded by charter members who prioritized a strategic location from the beginning. Located across the street from the only surgical abortion facility in the state since that time, the center often serves abortion-minded and vulnerable women who often think they’re coming in for their abortion appointment.
This year alone, as of the end of July, the center has served 254 new clients.
“We’ve had 49 women change their mind for life this year, with half of the calendar year remaining,” Lashbrook said. “We only hope that number continues to increase exponentially with the additional opportunities the mobile clinic will provide.”
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The Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center sees a mobile ultrasound unit not only as a way to reach additional at-risk women, but also as an outreach to the Little Rock community as a whole.
“By being present throughout the community, we’re increasing awareness and opening the pro-life discussion,” Lashbrook said. “All pro-life professionals work together as a team. We’re hoping our mobile unit will bring new awareness to pregnancy care centers in a positive light throughout the region and state.”