Four college students who more than a decade ago held a 40-day vigil outside a Texas abortion clinic could not have known their effort would grow into a national organization based in the very building they targeted for protest. But the clinic's former director -- now a pro-life activist -- says they've chosen symbolism over substance and given Planned Parenthood a fat payday in the process.
It started in 2004, when the students began their 24-hour prayer vigil in front of the Planned Parenthood facility in Bryan-College Station to “peacefully and prayerfully remove abortion from the Brazos Valley.”
“Before the end, nearly 1,000 people had joined us,” said Shawn Carney, one of the four and now the campaign director for "40 Days for Life," a global ministry running similar campaigns in 307 cities across the country. “We knew we were on to something.”
“I couldn’t believe we gave a significant amount of money directly into the hands of Planned Parenthood."
- Abby Johnson, pro-life activist
When tough state abortion laws forced Planned Parenthood to pull out of the location in 2013, 40 Days for Life teamed with local counseling organization Hope Pregnancy Centers to buy the building for roughly $725,000. Now the building includes counseling services, a medical facility where sexually transmitted diseases are treated and the pro-life organization's headquarters. It marks the first known time that a pro-life organization has bought and re-purposed a Planned Parenthood facility, and the new landlords say the symbolic victory is no accident.
“It’s a new strategy for us,” says Tracy Frank, executive director of Hope Pregnancy Centers. “Our community never wanted Planned Parenthood. We’ve been told they wanted to leave the area sooner but didn’t want to give 40 Days for Life a victory.”
However, despite the removal of the abortion facility, not everyone in the pro-life movement is rejoicing. Abby Johnson, who once served as director of the Planned Parenthood facility before becoming an anti-abortion activist, said buying the building put money in the hands of the nation's largest abortion provider.
“I couldn’t believe we gave a significant amount of money directly into the hands of Planned Parenthood,” Johnson said, noting a particular “disgust” because the facility was an affiliate of the Gulf Coast Area Planned Parenthood, one of the branches spotlighted in recent undercover videos that purportedly showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal organs and tissue.
Johnson now runs the pro-life organization “And Then There Were None,” which aids former abortion industry workers.
“Why are we as pro-lifers calling for boycotts on products which give about one cent per sale to Planned Parenthood, then turning around to write them a check for almost a million dollars?” said Johnson. “Our governor is going to war to keep $3 million out of the hands of abortionists in Texas. Why are we fighting so hard and then writing them a check? It’s just a building.”
Franks confirmed that the renovation and purchase price for the 6,000-square-foot building was about $725,000. She acknowledges it is a large sum, but said it makes an important statement.
“Some people may feel its lining the pockets of Planned Parenthood, but our donors wanted it and we felt it was redemptive and a restoration of community values,” Frank said. “Now we have a building worth far more than what we paid for it and now they can’t come back.”
Along with pregnancy testing, Hope Pregnancy Centers offer options counseling, free ultrasounds, pre-natal vitamins and extensive parent education courses translating into free baby supplies such as cribs and car seats. But it also offers STD treatment and counseling, a key service Planned Parenthood also provided, and one which critics said the community, which includes students from Texas A&M University, desperately needed.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge to portions of the 2013 Texas law requiring abortion facilities to meet ambulatory care standards and requiring abortion practitioners to have admitting privileges to hospitals within a 30-mile radius of the facility.
"Women in Texas should have access to the highest quality health care, no matter where they live," Planned Parenthood said in a statement. "That is why we will continue to fight to protect women's access to health care across the state."
But abortion advocates have put “all their eggs in politics and the court system,” said Carney, who believes giving the building a new mission sends a deeper message.
“We are trying to give hope at the local level and not afraid to publicly and peacefully create a culture of life and of hope,” he said. “People in this situation already feel helpless and you can’t look to Washington to help.”