Issues

Crossing the Picket Line

Former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson has helped 330 abortion workers quit the industry

Marchers carry signs during the 2016 March for Life / AP

Annette Lancaster exited her Chapel Hill office in April 2016 and gave a nod to the woman who held a regular protest against her employer. She entered the parking lot and found that someone had placed business cards beneath the wiper blades of her Chrysler 300. They advertised a group she had never heard of: And Then There Were None. She quit Planned Parenthood in May.

"It would eventually have killed me, it was that emotionally straining," Lancaster said.

And Then There Were None is the brainchild of former Texas Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson. The group has helped 330 abortion clinic workers, including seven doctors, walk away from the industry. The group is designed to provide a support system that was lacking when Johnson famously walked away from her job and became a pro-life activist in 2009.

"There really was not any resource like this in the pro-life movement before," she said. "A lot of [pro-life] people were skeptical. Some had always thought of workers as the enemy. We were the first to focus on helping them escape this life."

Lancaster was hesitant to quit her job. She had worked in health care since 1999, performing a variety of roles, including medical interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients. She had never participated in an abortion until losing her job during a hospital merger. After job hunting for several months, she was recruited to join Planned Parenthood off of CareerBuilder. She started working as a clinic manager in September 2015 and was impressed enough by the high pay that she got her 18-year-old niece a job.

The pay bump helped her deal with the cost of raising her sons, now 9 and 2, and her cousin's 17-year-old daughter, who Lancaster took in as a foster child.

"We were making killer money. … The overwhelming amount of money is the trap. They pay above your pay grade," she said. "Even when I reached a breaking point, I kept telling myself I would make it work. I had one foot out the door, it was just the finances that kept me from quitting."

And Then There Were None provides workers with a temporary financial cushion to ease their transition out of the industry. The group provides one month's pay to any worker who leaves, matching the pay of security guards and doctors alike. Several professional resume writers and consultants also volunteer for Johnson's group. They coach workers on finding new jobs, and have an internal network of health care professionals who help them get back on their feet.

"Many of them have families to feed and that can be the last hurdle," Johnson said.

Addressing the financial needs of clinic workers, however, is the easiest part of her work.

Lancaster said her clinic had a limited number of "abortion days" each month, and estimated that doctors performed about 30 abortions each work day. Those sessions coincided with staff bar outings. "We dealt with it through alcohol. Every abortion day we'd go out. I was drinking one or two bottles of wine a day," she said, adding that by the spring of 2016 she had become a "ticking time bomb."

She pocketed the card on her Chrysler and called the number after a few days of contemplation. She was suspicious of pro-life activists after being instructed at the clinic not to communicate with those holding the sidewalk prayer vigils.

"I was expecting [hostility] and had my guns up ready for a fight. I was expecting to hang up. Instead I heard a bunch of hippy people talking about love," she said.

The backbone of And Then There Were None is a couple dozen volunteers and full-time employees who work as client managers. These women work the phones at the organization, serving as confidants and client managers. They're told to be available at all hours, much like an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor or counselor. Their job is to listen more than persuade.

Laura Ricketts, a long-time pro-life activist from Winchester, Va., came to the organization to work with "high risk" clients who had experienced trauma. She lives up to the hippy qualities described by Lancaster.

"We provide emotional support. We want them to know that they are loved because love speaks louder than words," Ricketts said. "If you're hostile to people it is counterproductive. Workers need to know that we love them no matter what."

Lancaster exchanges daily texts and calls with her client manager, who she describes as "like my sister." The calls have become less frequent over time.

"I had horrible nightmares when I first left. I'd call her in the middle of the night, I called her whenever. … She was always there for me," she said. "She's like my sister."

Johnson put women at the center of the group's mission to overcome stereotypes used by pro-choice advocates to discredit the pro-life movement. She saw last Saturday's Women's March on Washington as a natural outpost for her cause and signed up her group as a sponsor. Just days before the march, she and other pro-life groups were scrubbed from the campaign after organizers received complaints from pro-choice advocates.

Johnson, 28 weeks pregnant with the twins who will be her sixth and seventh kids, still marched on Saturday. She said she was shoved to the ground by a fellow marcher.

"We represent a group of primarily women who are a direct threat to one of the premier partners of the [Women's] march, Planned Parenthood. Of course they don't want our voice to be heard at a march where they're financial contributors and organizers," she said.

Lancaster concurred that And Then There Were None is a "direct threat" to the abortion industry. She kept in touch with her former colleagues after the group helped her get a new job in the Duke University hospital system.

"I brought three of them with me," she said.

Johnson will be back in Washington, D.C. this week to prepare for Friday's March for Life. There, she will be on the main stage with 10 former Planned Parenthood workers to share their experiences and "bring some humanity back into the discussion" about abortion clinic workers. Annette Lancaster will be standing next to her.