Kathleen Eaton, founder and CEO of Birth Choice Health Clinics, a faithbased, pro-life organization that provides free medical services and education to pregnant women and their families, received the 2010 Cardinal John J. O’Connor Pro-Life Award from Legatus, an organization for Catholic business leaders. Fellow award recipients included President George W. Bush and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Eaton received the award at the Legatus Annual Summit in Dana Point, California on February 5.
“I was honored to receive it,” remarked Eaton, a member of Legatus since 2007. “I also had the opportunity to tell President Bush how funding we received through his faith-based initiatives helped our clinics.”
Eaton currently oversees five Birth Choice clinics in Orange County and Long Beach, California, which, since their founding in 1985, have led thousands of abortion-minded women to choose life. She knows firsthand the tragic consequences of abortion, as she herself had one in 1981.
“I was told it was a blob of tissue, and believed that once I had the abortion, life would go back to normal,” she recalls.
Birth Choice’s role is to tell women in a supportive, loving way that they have options, and provide resources to help them choose life. Eaton’s mission in life, she explained, is “to compete for the lives of women and their children— both born and preborn.”
Eaton was born and reared in Seattle, and then came to Southern California as a teen. She was one of six children. Her father worked in the aerospace industry. She was part of an Irish Catholic family, and she attended Catholic schools. The family prayed the Rosary together daily.
She went to work for AT&T, married at age 19, and had a son. Eaton enjoyed financial success and by age 28 had already bought her third house. “I was wrapped up in my job and making money. I was on a fast track to a lucrative promotion,” she remembered.
But her marriage struggled, and she separated from her husband. While separated, Eaton became pregnant by another man. She thought abortion her only choice: “I couldn’t bear the thought of telling my parents I was pregnant by another man.”
Eaton sought help from Planned Parenthood and Family Planning Associates (FPA). She took her pregnancy test at Planned Parenthood, and had her abortion at FPA. She scheduled her abortion for a morning, at a clinic located near her work site. She was planning to return to work that afternoon. The father of the child drove her to the clinic, but that was the last time she ever saw him. Thirty years later, she still has vivid memories of the clinic, a big room with dirty mattresses where women were taken to recover after they had their abortions. Many of the women there were crying, Eaton says.
She quit her job, had her marriage annulled, and relocated to Oklahoma. But most significantly, Eaton went back to church. She commented, “You can walk away from God, but God won’t walk away from you.”
While in Oklahoma she got involved in the pro-life movement, hoping to persuade women not to make the same mistake she did. She volunteered at Birth Choice Pregnancy Resource Center in Oklahoma City. Her activities included driving to Kansas to pray in front of clinics operated by the late-term abortionist George Tiller.
Eaton’s spiritual recovery included going to confession and taking part in a naming ceremony for her aborted child. Believing she had a boy, she named him Tobias, or Toby. Years later, she named Toby’s House (www.tobyshouse.org) in his memory. The home provides women in crisis pregnancy situations temporary housing while they have their babies.
Eaton married her husband Phil, with whom she had more children. When the children were older, she told them about her abortion and asked their permission to publicly share her story. They agreed, and Eaton’s mission began: “To uncover the darkness of the abortion industry.”
Having returned to Southern California, she took over direction of a Birthright Pregnancy Resource Center in Mission Viejo, a city in southern Orange County, and re-named it Birth Choice. She recalls wavering in her decision whether or not to resume the apostolate, until a distraught women called the helpline and related that her best friend was sending her 16-year-old daughter to one of Tiller’s clinics for an abortion. Kathleen knew she had to continue her pro-life work.
Today, Birth Choice operates five clinics with seven paid staff members and more than 200 volunteers. They offer such free services as pregnancy testing, STD testing, ultrasounds, and parenting services. Two of the clinics offer pre-natal care. Each is strategically located near clinics that offer abortions. In 2009, the clinics received more than 11,000 patient visits; many were abortion-minded women. Enrollment in Birth Choice parenting classes grew by 108 percent last year, and Birth Choice volunteers logged 6,139 hours.
Jennifer Borba is director of program services at Birth Choice’s Long Beach clinic, which Eaton sent her to open in 2009. She and a part-time nurse are the only paid staff members. “Our goal is to offer women a safe, loving environment and let them know they have options other than abortion,” she explained.
The Long Beach clinic currently serves about 70 clients per week, mostly black and Hispanic, poor and unmarried. Nearby are two clinics that offer abortions. A sidewalk counselor recently brought in a couple entering one of the abortion clinics. The couple opted to go to Birth Choice instead, and after wavering for a week, decided to have their child. Seeing the ultrasound image of their baby made the difference. Borba noted, “The studies show that once a pregnant woman sees her baby’s heart beating, she chooses life.”
Carol Walsh of Newport Beach served as a volunteer at Birth Choice’s Irvine clinic. She got her start by doing pro-life sidewalk counseling in front of abortion clinics in Chicago before moving to California. She worked at Birth Choice both during the week and on Saturdays, when a nearby clinic was performing abortions. She answered the phones, and trained to be a counselor. Volunteer counselors receive about 25 hours of training, and are heavily supported by experienced counselors.
“Answering the phone is important, because you’re the first point of contact,” Walsh remarked. She was newly married and pregnant with her first child when she volunteered. She continued volunteering and returned with her sleeping newborn to volunteer on Saturdays. She recalls one abortionminded woman, who saw Walsh’s daughter and started crying. “She said it was too difficult to talk about abortion in front of my baby,” Walsh recalled.
The fact that Birth Choice has gone from being a pregnancy resource center to a medical center has contributed to its success, Walsh added, as women can get the pre-natal services they need without going to a Planned Parenthood clinic. “Birth Choice does a lot of good work,” she said. “Many of the people who come are looking for the alternatives Birth Choice provides.”
Also crucial to the Birth Choice clinics’ success, she says, has been the addition of ultrasound technology, which allows women to see images of their babies and watch them moving. When the clinics were merely pregnancy resource centers, not offering medical services, about 10 percent of the abortion- minded women were persuaded to choose life. With the ultrasound equipment, that number has increased to 75 percent.
When the question of using contraceptives comes up, Birth Choice staff and volunteers have a brochure explaining the risks and problems with different forms of birth control. Eaton stressed, “We’re an abstinence-only organization. It always works. And for those single women who have had sex before marriage, we encourage them to embrace a second virginity.”
Eaton has seen firsthand the harm of sex outside of marriage, in terms of unwanted pregnancies, disease, and heartache. For this reason she began the programs Teen Integrity (www.teenintegrity.org) and Sexual Integrity, which is for young adults. She has traveled to schools and clinics to make her presentation, and regularly receives a favorable reception to her message. She recalled one high school student who, upon learning that the developing fetus has both a detectable heartbeat and brain wave patterns at its earliest stages, reversed his position and became pro-life.
FUNDED BY PRIVATE DONATIONS
Funding remains a challenge, particularly in the current economy. The Birth Choice clinics are funded mostly by private donations. They did, however, recently receive some tobacco tax revenue for STD testing from the state of California. But the majority of California’s legislators are not sympathetic to the pro-life cause; in fact, the state funds abortions through its Medi-Cal program.
The clinics operate on a combined annual budget of $1.4 million, virtually all of which comes from private donations. In the last two years, donations have dropped 40 percent. To raise the money she needs, Eaton must constantly raise funds. “I believe in miracles,” she said. “I manage to pay my bills every month.”
Now widowed and with grown children, Eaton devotes herself full time to her apostolate, frequently speaking to churches and organizations about the work of Birth Choice. Some of her most generous donors have been councils of the Knights of Columbus. Funding from them has allowed her to purchase ultrasound equipment.
Birth Choice advertises primarily through search engine optimization and key-word buys (which are expensive), Facebook, and word-of-mouth. Though a faith-based organization, only 2 percent of their funds come from churches. At one time, 14 area churches would give a modest portion of their Sunday collections to Birth Choice, but in the midst of today’s recession, only two have continued to do so. When Eaton visits churches she might distribute 500 Birth Choice brochures, yet only about 5 percent yield donations. But occasionally she gets sizable anonymous donations: a visit to St. Bonaventure Church in Huntington Beach yielded one of $50,000. (She’s also grateful to the Birth Choice Board, which is led by real estate developer Arthur Birtcher.)
Eaton hopes that the model of Birth Choice clinics is adopted elsewhere in the country.
Plans are in the works to open a sixth clinic, a mobile facility offering free pregnancy services that can be parked in front of abortion clinics and can also be taken to Southern California’s crowded beaches. The mobile clinic would be temporary, until funds can be raised to open more “brick and mortar” facilities.
As part of Birth Choice’s efforts to offer women alternatives to abortion, Eaton also operates two Toby’s House homes, which serve up to 12 young women. Director of Toby’s House Jacquelyn Flora explained, “We maintain a pleasant, positive atmosphere, where our girls can stay up to two years if they need to.”
Although it’s not been an easy life for Kathleen Eaton, it’s been a good one. “I love what I do,” she reflects.