The founder of Obria Medical Clinics believes her vision will change the landscape of abortion in America
Bravo recently spoke to Zoe Romanowsky about what has happened since that fateful day outside an abortion clinic and about her plans to revolutionize the way society meets the needs of pregnant women.
What inspired you to open three pregnancy centers, which were originally called Birth Choice and have since become Obria Medical Clinics?
A year before I started working in the pro-life movement I walked out the back door of an abortion clinic. I was raised Catholic — Irish Catholic — but I’d left my faith and hadn’t been in a church for eight years. I was on the fast-track… working for AT&T in management and living the dream. I was married, had one child, a big house, a BMW, the whole thing. And then I got pregnant.
My job was a non-traditional job for women — I ran construction crews and had approximately 200 men working for me. I knew I couldn’t do it pregnant so I justified an abortion. I was the bread winner, my husband was in school, we had a child, and I had all these trappings. Like the 60% of women who abort and already have a child, I shut down the reality that I already knew. The day after I did a pregnancy test, I walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic and made an appointment for the next day, but that same afternoon at one of the job sites, I saw a Family Planning Associates across the street and they said “we can do the abortion now,” so I went in and aborted my baby. No medicine. It was a horrific experience.
When I walked back out the back door, my car had a flat tire, so I had to sit on the curb and wait for AAA. It was that half an hour that changed my life.
I started crying and talking to God. I was so broken. I ended up telling God, “Just bring me one woman that I can share what I’ve been through and tell her she doesn’t have to do this – that she has options, then maybe I can start to forgive myself.”
When my marriage ended — which it did because of the abortion — I began hooking up and partying, and then I met a man and we married and moved to Oklahoma. I was fighting for custody of my 1-year-old son and had decided to run, hoping my problems would stay in California. My life felt like it was over and I was desperate.
After a year of hell and a very dark night of the soul, I found myself inside a small Catholic church called St. Andrew’s in Oklahoma City. I couldn’t receive the sacraments, but I cried through the whole Mass and wanted to run. At the end, a woman got up and said she worked at a crisis pregnancy center and was looking for volunteers. That night 25 women prayed over me and that was the beginning of a conversion to my true Catholic faith, and my first introduction to the pro-life movement. I started volunteering at the pregnancy center there, a Birth Choice. And then I brought it back to California. We are still connected and I was just there and spoke at their gala.
How did you go from being pregnancy resource centers to being a full-service medical clinic for women?
We stayed as pregnancy resource centers until 2006. My husband at the time died — we had stayed together and I had two more boys — and I was running my own successful for-profit company in the private sector in support of my family. And I ran the pregnancy centers. But I knew in 2004, that for the pro-life movement to really survive and thrive, the pregnancy center model needed to change; it was becoming outdated and a bit obsolete. So I went to the board of the three Birth Choices and told them that I wanted to take the pregnancy centers into a full medical model that could get patients out of Planned Parenthood and into our clinics.
I went into this to give women alternatives to abortion by competing against the organizations I had gone into to have my abortion. I felt like if we could develop a medical model, and educate, and listen, and be pro-active — rather than reactive — then we could have a much bigger impact on not only saving babies, but impacting the culture. I knew that the only way to do this… just like in my own company… was to create a better model of medical care in the community so that women come into our clinics instead of Planned Parenthood and others.
I can tell you that every focus group we do people say they go to Planned Parenthood because there is no alternative. They’re not going into a pregnancy crisis centers because they’re looking for health care. What drives them to Planned Parenthood is what we need to create to bring them to us. Because once we get them they’ll never go back, and that’s proven to be true.
So by the end of 2006, all three of the Birth Choice resource centers were licensed community clinics in California. We were doing pregnancy care, ultrasound, full scope STD testing and treatment, including HIV-AIDS. We had nurse practitioners, did prenatal care, and have now moved that into full OB care right up until delivery. And we do well-women care, including Pap smears and cancer screenings. We have to do what Planned Parenthood does (minus contraception and abortion of course) and do it better. This is the Obria model.
What are your hopes and plans for Obria?
If I was a pregnant woman wanting an abortion — and I was — and I walked into a clinic and they just had some resources and an ultrasound, that would tell me they really care about the baby. We needed a clinic that could say “we care about you.” We are now providing over 12,000 services to over 4,000-5,000 patients a year. This means patients are staying; we are now their health care provider. A woman who comes will bring five friends back with her. She’ll tell them there’s another clinic in town — an option to Planned Parenthood.
I’m a business woman and I brought a business model to this. The pregnancy center movement came out of my mother’s generation and it’s all compassion and love and heart, with lots of volunteers. But when you create a full medical model you have a plan, and you hire people. Our nurses are young, strong Christians, who are pro-life and love what they do. About six years ago, we wrote a strategic plan and we wanted to have unity under a name — there were other Birth Choices around the country doing different things. So we hired a branding company, and did focus groups. The first name was Obria and I loved it.
When I meet with my donors, I point out that three years ago no one knew Uber and now it’s on everyone’s tongue. We’re going to take Obria to that same reality… a known brand of women’s healthcare clinics. Hopefully, and God willing, five years from now we’ll have 200 Obria medical clinics which will decrease abortion by 335,000 per year.
I’ve read that you view change as an opportunity — how does that approach to life, as well as your faith, drive your decisions?
Being a visionary for me has always been tied to miracles in my life. I think I always go into this as a little ignorant or stupid — can I really do this? And I’ve thought, let’s just go and see what happens. But I’ve always told God that I’m going to keep marching forward and if I’m not supposed to go somewhere, shut the door, and if I’m supposed to go, open the door. I do have to say the hardest thing for me is having the faith to walk through the door and I think as Christians we are all challenged by that.
How do you deal with fear?
I don’t think there is any issue more divisive in our country than abortion. We’ve killed 60 million babies on our watch. If you’re going to stand in the gap and put on the armor of God and move forward, this battle is like no other. No other is more difficult and heart-wrenching, but we are always trying to march forward. The armor is the breastplate — it’s on the front, not on the back, so you have to keep walking forward. My faith is my rock, my shield. Don’t get me wrong, I falter and fall, and I am not a saint. I’m a sinner, like everyone else. I doubt, I run and hide, I pull up the covers, but then I just pray.
Given how tough it is on the front lines of this kind of work, where do you find support, besides your family?
I’ve always had very strong spiritual guidance and direction. I’m in prayer group and a rosary group and I have people around me who give me strength and pray for me. I have two very strong, innovative, visionary friends and whenever I call they’re right there. A close priest friend has advised me for 25 years. I doubt myself more than anyone doubts me, but God has put into my life some amazing people — mostly women and priests – who have always been there for me. I couldn’t have done it without them.
This is the ninth installment in Aleteia’s series on Catholic innovators. Be sure to check out our previous interviews with Tom Peterson, Michael Matheson Miller, Jenna Guizar, Bishop Christopher Coyne, Brandon Vogt, Lisa Hendey, Margaret Rose Realy, Obl., OSB, and Daniel Mitsui.