As Americans mark the 40th anniversary of the 1973 US Supreme Court decision striking down the nation’s anti-abortion laws, Americans remain deeply divided on the issue. There is one small group, however, that has a unique perspective from which to shed light on it: former workers in the abortion industry who, for moral reasons, left their jobs—often returning to or finding religious faith—and embraced the pro-life cause. Having worked behind the doors of abortion clinics, they know first-hand what abortion is, and the destructive force it has been in many lives.
“We wouldn’t really tell them about alternative options”
Annette Lopez worked as a program assistant for Planned Parenthood in the Los Angeles area for five years. Her job was to visit high schools and teach teens about “responsible choices” relating to sex.
She first learned about Planned Parenthood while in college. A nominal Catholic, her views were rather vague on the abortion issue, and she was assured it was a small part of Planned Parenthood’s business.
Lopez initially liked her job. “I wanted to help youth,” she explained. “I had a niece who got pregnant at a very young age, and I wanted to help them avoid making her mistake.”
As Lopez was seldom at clinics she rarely saw pro-life demonstrators, and what little she knew about them was negative. Her perspective on pro-lifers came from such media depictions as the 1996 HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk, in which pro-life demonstrators are angry and violent. (Cher portrays the caring and kind abortionist, Dr. Beth Thompson, in the movie, who is harassed relentlessly by pro-lifers. At the close of the movie, she has just performed an abortion on a relieved Anne Heche, and is gunned down by a pro-lifer who bursts into the procedure room.)
In her final year at Planned Parenthood Lopez began dating her future husband, a pro-life Catholic who gently queried her about her work. “He’d ask, ‘Don’t they do abortions there? Is that right? You’re a loving person and you love your family, why are you there, where they hurt babies?’” she recalled. “He got me thinking.”
In her final six months of employment, she began working in a supporting role at a clinic. Her new manager suggested she train to become a medical assistant, as budget cuts could eliminate her education position. He also suggested she watch an abortion. Lopez recalled, “He said, ‘That’s what we do. Every staff member should know what it is.’ I knew I didn’t want to work there anymore.”
Lopez also was involved in “counseling” women with unplanned pregnancies. She’d tell them that they had three options: keep their babies, put them up for adoption, or have abortions. If the patient expressed any interest in abortion, she was instructed to schedule one. She said, “We wouldn’t really tell them about alternative options. We were trying to push them towards having abortions.”
Lopez attended a pro-life conference, and one of the speakers was Abby Johnson, who told the story of how she left employment at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas. As she sat listening, Lopez prayed for guidance. She said, “I knew I had to go talk with her. I spoke with her after the talk, and she gave me the strength I needed.”
The next day she quit.
She began volunteering for Los Angeles Pregnancy Services (LAPS), a pro-life clinic in a poor Hispanic neighborhood which offers women alternatives to abortion. The pro-life facility is surrounded by abortion clinics that advertise their services in the neighborhood. “It was an amazing experience,” Lopez said of her time at LAPS. “I’m so happy I got involved. I discovered that pro-life people are compassionate and loving, and not the way Planned Parenthood portrays them.”
Lopez married, and has a child with another on the way. Wanting to better understand fertility cycles, she and her husband took Natural Family Planning (NFP) classes. Realizing that NFP could benefit LAPS clients, she and her husband are now training to become NFP instructors.
Astrid Bennett Gutierrez, director of LAPS, was grateful for Lopez’s time at LAPS: “She is awesome. She saved many babies.”
“Now I see it’s just a business”
Sue Thayer worked for a Planned Parenthood clinic in Storm Lake, Iowa for 17 years. She began in 1991 as a family planning assistant, and soon became a manager. She joined Planned Parenthood because she was interested in women’s health care, the pay was good, and it was close to her home.
Thayer was opposed to abortion, but since it was not performed at her particular clinic, she agreed to work there. However, she had to train at a Des Moines clinic watching a full day of abortions being performed. She said, “It made me want all the more to prevent unplanned pregnancies [through the distribution of contraceptives].”
She continued, “Planned Parenthood told us that an unborn baby is just a blob of tissue, and that it’s a woman’s right to have an abortion. I guess I bought into some of that. It’s a line they continue to spew out even to this day.”
That’s not the view Thayer holds now. She said, “At nine weeks, the baby is fully formed. He has tiny fingernails and facial features. He’s a human being.”
Thayer’s career with Planned Parenthood came to an end in 2008. The organization directed her clinic to begin what she calls “telemed” or “webcam” abortions. The abortionist is in one location, and the woman seeking an abortion in another. The abortionist views an ultrasound image of the unborn child to determine if he is 63 days along or less. If so, the abortionist can push a button remotely and a drawer will open with medication. The woman takes the medication, and it kills her unborn child. Another set of medications is taken at home to cause contractions and deliver the child’s corpse.
The webcam abortions are a financial boon to Planned Parenthood, Thayer said. They cost the same as a surgical abortion, and the abortionist does not have to travel to the site to see the woman. (A big plus in her clinic’s case, Thayer said, as their abortionist hated to travel.) Women who come to the clinics are told, Thayer said, that they can “take care of their problem today in 45 minutes” using the webcam abortions.
In practice, Thayer continued, webcam abortions are traumatic for women. She heard stories of women who would collapse at home in their bathrooms, deliver their dead children, and immediately feel remorse at what they’d done. She said some brought their dead babies back to the clinics in Ziploc bags and said to the clinic managers, “I didn’t know this was a baby.”
Thayer vocally objected to bringing webcam abortions to her clinic. “I told them it was a stupid idea.,” she said. “They fired me. They said they were downsizing. I was relieved.”
Thayer is a self-described “born-again Christian” who believes God wants her to share the message of the evil of webcam abortions. She wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Times sharing the story of webcam abortions.
Thayer also stresses that money is a big motivator in the abortion business. She said, “It’s all about money. Each Planned Parenthood center has a goal of how many abortions they do each week. When I started, I thought Planned Parenthood helped women. Now I see it’s just a business.”
Thayer has participated in the 40 Days for Life prayer vigils in front of the clinic at which she once worked. She has spoken out against webcam abortions before legislative hearings, and believes she played a role in getting the Wisconsin state legislature to ban the procedure.
“I killed 1,200 kids”
While many former workers in the abortion industry leave due to religious conversions, for others it takes a personal tragedy. Such was the case with Anthony Levatino, MD, a former abortionist.
Dr. Levatino grew up in Rochester, New York, attended medical school in the 1970s, and became an OB/GYN. As part of his practice, he performed first and second trimester abortions.
He and his wife experienced infertility problems, and began the onerous process of adopting a newborn infant. They went to many adoption agencies, and were put on a five-year waiting list. He and his wife were able to privately adopt a girl, Heather, in 1978. It was the first time he had moral qualms about abortion. He said, “It was odd, I was doing abortions during the day, but in the evenings I was looking for children to adopt.”
Two months after adopting Heather, Levatino’s wife conceived. So the couple had two children.
Levatino and his doctor partner were looking for a better method for second trimester abortions. They learned the “dilation and evacuation,” or D&E, method, in which the abortionist literally dismembers the child a piece at a time, pulling the pieces out of the woman’s body.
Tragedy struck the Levatino family 1984. Levatino’s adopted daughter, Heather, was struck by a car and killed. He recalled, “It was beyond traumatic.”
After taking some time off of work, Levatino found himself back in the office, performing a D&E abortion. When he used a clamp to pull out the first limb of the child, he got sick and didn’t want to continue. He finished the procedure, but found it “very difficult.” He recalled, “I found myself looking down at a pile of body parts that I’d been paid to dismember.”
Levatino stopped doing second trimester abortions, and then in 1985, stopped doing all abortions. He got involved with the pro-life movement, speaking at crisis pregnancy centers and pro-life dinners and even serving as medical director of Priests for Life. Three times he testified before the US Congress to oppose abortion-related measures.
His previous career as an abortionist grieves him. “I’ve had a complete and utter change of heart,” Levatino said. “I’m horrified by it. I killed 1,200 kids.”
One person who was especially pleased with the doctor’s change of heart was his wife, who was pro-life. Levatino said, “She always objected to me doing abortions. It was a source of tension for us, so we avoided talking about it.”
Levatino does believe there are fewer physicians willing to perform abortions today. Abortion was legalized when he was going through his training, so there was “some degree of enthusiasm for abortion in my generation.” Many of these physicians have had a change of heart (“we’ve had a belly full of killing”), and no longer accept the pro-abortion argument “It’s just a blob of cells.” With modern technology, including ultrasound images, it is unmistakable that abortion kills a baby, he said.
Fewer young physicians are willing to perform abortions, he noted. That has led groups like Planned Parenthood to step up their recruiting among medical students through groups such as Medical Students for Choice. MSFC laments the “dangerous shortage of trained abortion providers” as well as the “‘graying’ of current providers.” Medical students are paid stipends to assist at abortion clinics, which “gets them comfortable being inside an abortion clinic,” Levatino said.
Today, Levatino works as a gynecologist in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He is a regular at pro-life gatherings, and recently served as master of ceremonies at the Pro-Life Action League’s 2012 Meet the Abortion Providers Conference. He spoke at the first conference in 1987, and was pleased to return for the conference’s 25th anniversary. He also speaks to high school groups, and is pleased to see more students self-identifying as pro-life. “I start by asking the kids, ‘How many of you consider yourselves pro-life?’ When I started giving these talks 25 years ago, maybe one hand would go up. Today, many more do. The numbers of pro-life teens is definitely increasing.”
“They felt trapped”
In an effort to help people working in the abortion industry who want to leave their jobs due to moral concerns, Abby Johnson founded And Then There Were None.
After Johnson began publicly sharing the testimony of her pro-life conversion, which is the basis for her book Unplanned (excerpts of which can be read at her website), many working in the abortion industry approached her asking for help. She said, “They felt trapped, and didn’t have anyone to turn to. I felt like God was giving me a violent shove to start this ministry.”
And Then There Were None formally kicked off in June, although Johnson had been informally helping clinic workers find new professions long before that (Annette Lopez, for example, is one of the 40 clinic workers the ministry has assisted).
Johnson said the primary concerns of the clinic workers are financial; many want to leave, but are afraid of not being able to pay the bills. Many are single mothers with children; one single mother she assisted, in fact, has seven children. And Then There Were None financially assists those who leave employment at the clinics for up to three months; stipends can be as much as $2,000 or $3,000 per month.
“It’s an expensive ministry,” Johnson conceded. “But one that works.”
Johnson believes there is a shortage of people willing to work at abortion clinics, because even though a large number of Americans identify themselves as pro-choice, there is still a stigma associated with being involved with performing abortions. She noted, “At the time, I loved what I did at Planned Parenthood, but I was not free with sharing that I worked there. I told people I worked in a doctor’s office.”
Johnson and her husband have converted to Catholicism. After it became known that she had quit her job at Planned Parenthood because of her pro-life convictions, she was asked to leave her Episcopalian church, she said, because it was pro-choice. She has since read and embraced the Catholic Church’s teaching on human life, as expressed in such documents as Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.
Johnson sees the work of And Then There Were None as a natural part of the pro-life movement. “We pro-lifers and Christians reach out to help women in crisis pregnancies—we must do the same for people who want to want to transition out of the evil abortion industry,” she said.