In 1995, Norma McCorvey, the once-anonymous plaintiff in Roe vs. Wade, converted to Christianity under the guidance of anti-abortion leader Flip Benham, founder of Operation Save America. She soon came to reject abortion rights, and in time became a regular mouthpiece for the anti-abortion cause. While McCorvey’s “Roe No More” story has become well-known, two decades later her movement is looking for a new class of converts to share their “come to Jesus” moment.
I’ll admit that the thought of attending Converted: From Abortion Provider to Pro-Life Activist, a Chicago conference for former abortion clinic staff, made me wary. As a pro-choice Christian who tends to see anti-abortion activists as zealots with a “by any means necessary” mentality I didn’t know what to expect from a day-long meeting of new converts offering the faithful behind-the-curtain peeks at what they call the “abortion industry.”
After making my way past tables of swag in the Crowne Plaza O’Hare Hotel’s lobby (rosaries, pictures of aborted babies and Romney campaign fliers), I caught the opening statements, hosted by the Pro-Life Action League, which was celebrating the morning’s “big win.” An appeals court had ruled that Illinois pharmacists were permitted to refuse to distribute Plan B emergency contraception if it interfered with their religious beliefs. The audience cheered the news and settled in for the day’s events.
Fighting back tears, Dr. Anthony Levatino, a former abortion provider who’d performed second-trimester abortions until the tragic death of his daughter, recalled how, after his eight-year-old daughter Heather was hit and killed by a car, he couldn’t perform any more abortions because it reminded him too much of the child that he lost.
The implication of his statement—that the loss of an eight-year-old child opened his eyes to the life lost in abortion—was the opening salvo in a day full of similar tales. In a way, the conference marked the mainstream debut of a longstanding anti-abortion strategy: former insiders denouncing the system they once defended and worked for.
On paper, the roster of speakers was impressive, representing more than 50 years of experience in reproductive health care among them. Besides Levatino, there was Dr. John Bruchalski, a former abortion provider from North Carolina; Dr. Anthony Caruso, a former in vitro fertilization (IVF) specialist in Chicago; Ruth Yorston, former women’s health clinic receptionist, currently Executive Director of Right to Life in Greater Ohio; and three former Planned Parenthood employees: Sue Thayer from Iowa, Catherine Adair from Massachusetts, and Linda Couri, who also discussed her own abortion.
And then there was the headline attraction: Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director in Texas, who notoriously converted to the cause in 2010, claiming she could no longer juggle her faith and her job. Since then, Johnson has climbed the ranks of the anti-abortion circuit, making the rounds on Fox News and in the Christian media (despite criticism from former colleagues and friends that Johnson’s main motivation was her anger at losing her job, and that her change of heart was, what one friend called, “bullshit”).
The speakers commonly described their entry into abortion work as marked by deception or naiveté. Yorston, for example, said that she didn’t really know how bad it would be and claimed that no one told her that the clinic performed abortions (a somewhat incredible charge given that she said her mother worked there too). Adair talked about how she had believed that Planned Parenthood really cared about women, but after witnessing its “corruption” decided it was time to leave.
There was a broader canvas of issues at stake than just abortion. Dr. Caruso talked about how the Vatican’s opposition to in vitro fertilization changed his views on IVF—noting in particular the disposal of unused embryos. Dr. Bruchalski told RD that his clinic was in the process of going green”—not changing their light bulbs, but rather phasing out birth control for the alleged harm contraception does to both women’s health and the environment.
But the real red meat of the conference were the war stories—offered without evidence—such as testimony that Planned Parenthood was nothing more than a for-profit slaughterhouse driven by a dollars-per-abortion mentality; that clinics create more business by pressuring young girls into getting same-day abortions; or that standards are so lax that workers with no medical training are dragooned into assisting in abortions. To hear them tell it, Planned Parenthood will force every worker, from the janitor to the accountant, to become a “murderer,” one way or another.
Sue Thayer claimed that she was once forced to drive to a different Planned Parenthood clinic in Iowa to watch 25 abortions in one day, performed in a dimly-lit operating room, allegedly “Because the doctor doesn’t want the patient to see her face.” Not to be outdone, Abby Johnson alleged that if employees at her Planned Parenthood clinic didn’t reach their monthly abortion quota, there could be hell to pay; that workers were trapped into staying by employers behaving like emotionally abusive boyfriends, telling them that no one would else would hire them now that they’d worked in abortion.
The more egregious the claim, the more the crowd gasped.
Though they expressed guilt and repentance, the converted providers on stage also presented themselves as victims. Many of the speakers talked about the need to “pray for the abortion worker,” and “save them from the hell called Planned Parenthood.” In a way, it was the same sort of shift that crisis pregnancy centers had pioneered, presenting themselves as the kinder, gentler face of pro-life activism, eager to help women avoid the harmful choice of abortion.
Similarly, the panel psychologized the issue, suggesting that abortion workers must be suffering in some way that leads them to work in the industry—that they come from broken homes, have bad peer influences, and just need love and help to leave the industry. Johnson has even started a ministry, And Then There Were None, that “rescues” abortion workers from Planned Parenthood by providing religious counsel as well as legal and financial help. So far, she says she has “saved” 38 workers from their jobs.
An Anti-Abortion Spin on the Oldest Story
But in the midst of this rebranding—from being the movement that attempts to criminalize abortion whose renegades’ commit violence against clinic staff, to suggesting that such staff are victims in need of intervention—it became clear that what had long been a background aspect of the anti-abortion movement was becoming increasingly important among a buffet of tactics. Staffer-as-victim was taking its place alongside claims that abortion is being used to perpetrate “black genocide” (as one attendee hastened to tell me), female infanticide, or to cover up statutory rape—all arguments that have gained steam in recent years.
The surface voyeurism that these stories provide is one obvious reason for their attraction, offering a peek behind the curtain of Planned Parenthood, a place that many in the crowd have dedicated their lives to dismantling. And, although many of the stories were flatly ludicrous, the power of the conversion narrative, dating back as it does to the “Roe” conversion, is undeniable.
Mirroring the born-again experience, they’re more or less an anti-abortion version of the oldest Christian story: once was blind, now I see. Their gestating faith had presented them with a divine ultimatum: Either continue “murdering babies” and go to hell, or do right by God and walk away. These conversion stories reinforce the bedrock Christian notion that God’s love can make anyone see the light, even those who have worked for the enemy. And the stories were moving.
But most importantly, these conversion tales appeal to a Christian audience because the very act of converting is the fundamental basis of their faith and the sole route to salvation. And whether it’s trying to convince others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or having that awakening for yourself, the Gospel of Matthew is clear. Jesus said, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
While some speakers, like the bereaved Dr. Levatino, seemed more credible than the opportunistic Johnson, that distinction misses the point of this new effort. The emotional validation their testimony provides to the movement faithful is more powerful than the dubious facts of their specific claims.