Catholic Bishops Fund Project Promoting Abortion Services in Women’s Prisons


Under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Ostara Initiative received its first ever grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), totaling $60,000.

The stated goal of Ostara is “to end prison birth in America.” Initially called “Isis Rising,” the Ostara Initiative was founded in 2004 in order to address the “needs of pregnant and parenting women in prison.”

Unfortunately, the Ostara Initiative considers access to abortion and contraception among the “needs” of pregnant women, and its leaders fully admit that access to abortion is included in their work.

The two main projects of the Ostara Initiative are the Alabama Prison Birth Project and the Minnesota Prison Doula Project (MnPDP).  MnPDP’s website confirms that is it a project of the Ostara Initiative and that it is a recipient of funding from the CCHD, which indicates that the CCHD’s funds went specifically to this project.

Both the executive director of the Ostara Initiative and the director of MnPDP are on the record that in the capacity of their work for Ostara, they “served as resources for women considering abortion” in prison.

According to the leadership page of the Ostara Initiative, Erica Gerrity is a co-founder of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project and the executive director of Ostara Initiative. Raelene Baker ​is the director of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project.

On 17 May 2018, Carleton College published an article about a presentation given by Erica Gerrity and Raelene Baker.  The talk, titled “Reproductive Justice and the Justice System,” was sponsored by “Advocates for Reproductive Choice,” and spotlighted MnPDP’s work regarding abortion:

“Although the Minnesota Prison Doula Project focuses on pregnancy care, birth, and child care, Erica and Raelene described how, due to the lack of support for abortions within the prison, the doulas have sometimes served as resources for women considering abortion.”

The article also noted how both Erica and Raelene expressed concern that prisons were reluctant to permit women prisoners to commit abortions:

Erica and Raelene described how, despite the fact that abortion is legal, and prisons are legally required to allow incarcerated women to have them, many jails and prisons attempt to keep women from getting abortions by ignoring their requests or putting off their appointments until it is too late to have an abortion.”

One month earlier, on 11 April, an article published on “Feminist Campus,” which describes itself as the “World’s Largest Feminist Student Network,” explained that the work of MnPDP includes abortion. Titled, “We Have No Idea What’s Happening to Pregnant People in America’s Prisons,” the article says the following about MnPDP:

“One group that has worked to support incarcerated women seeking access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion, is the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. The Doula Project works in compassionate solidarity with incarcerated women to create community, opportunity, and change through the provision of pregnancy and parenting support for incarcerated pregnant people and mothers. The Doula Project provides birth support from trained doulas, as well as both group-based and individual education. All of these services support the goal of nurturing healthy relationships as well as increasing parenting confidence and skills. Though the work of the doulas was initially focused on prenatal care, birth, and mothering, they have recently aided a few of their clients in accessing abortion care, which demonstrates the group’s responsiveness to the needs of the community of women that they serve.”

Another co-founder of MnPDP, and found on the Ostara Initiative leadership page, is Dr. Rebecca Shlafer.

On 27 April 2018, Dr. Shlafer represented MnPDP in a panel discussion she participated in at St. Olaf’s College titled “Reproductive Health Behind Bars: A Discussion with the Experts”.  At the beginning of the presentation, she is identified as a co-founder of “the Minnesota Prison Doula Project.”  The last question of the discussion was about abortion, wherein Shlafer was asked if abortion is accessible to women in prison.  In response, Shlafer was incredulous that healthcare providers were ignoring requests for information or access to abortion during their incarceration.  She said that it “boggles her mind” that the state would provide maternal and child health services, but not abortion, and said that “We’re treating people like crap and we’re not giving them access to terminating their pregnancies when they want to.”  What follows is a short video clip showing the introduction of Dr. Shlafer as co-founder of MnPDP and her statements regarding abortion.  The full video can be found here.

Chauntel Norris is identified on the Ostara Initiative leadership page as the co-manager for the Ostara Initiative’s Alabama Prison Birth Project.  On her facebook page, Norris “likes” Planned Parenthood.

In 2016, MnPDP published a Pregnancy Resource Guide for Incarcerated Mothers.  In direct violation of CCHD grant guidelines, this resource guide advocates the use of contraception, including abortifacients.

Beginning on page 3, under the heading, “Top 10 Tips for Making a Healthy Baby,” the guide says:

“10. Use birth control until you’re ready to start trying

There are many birth control options available, including, condoms, birth control pills, Depo-Provera shot, and the intrauterine device (IUD).  Ask your healthcare provider for more information.”

Page 37 identifies OB/GYNs as individuals who can assist with obtaining contraception, and page 38 identifies Midwifes as individuals who can do the same.

The CCHD claims to have a “rigorous review process” of all grant applicants, but this information was not difficult to find.  The articles citing the co-founder of the Ostara Initiative and the director of its project, MnPDP, indicating that they council women on abortion access; the advocacy for abortion from co-founder Dr. Shlafer, the social media support for Planned Parenthood by Ostara leaders, and the Pregnancy Guide advocating for abortifacient birth control were all found within a matter of minutes.  Despite its boasting of this “rigorous” screening process for at least the last 13 years, the CCHD is routinely found giving large sums of money to organizations directly advocating for and providing access to grave moral evils.  Whether this is a problem of complete incompetence or direct complicity, the CCHD has proven itself incapable or unwilling to adhere to Catholic moral teaching.

The Lepanto Institute is asking bishops across the country to shut down the CCHD once and for all.


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