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Opponents of abortion rights often focus their work on trying to restrict abortion through legislatures and the courts or persuading pregnant women to carry to term. But one group is taking a different focus - encouraging health care workers to leave abortion-related jobs. NPR's Sarah McCammon has the story.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: At a secluded retreat center outside Austin, Texas, roughly a dozen women are gathered in a quiet conference room. Abby Johnson is leading a discussion about guilt and shame.
ABBY JOHNSON: Does anybody feel like they're still dealing with, like, shame, like, feeling bad about yourself as a person because of...
MCCAMMON: At 37, Johnson is the mother of seven children and CEO of the anti-abortion group And Then There Were None. Johnson generated headlines and controversy after she left her job as a Planned Parenthood clinic director in Bryan, Texas, in 2009. As she told a local TV station at the time, Johnson says she had a change of heart after viewing an abortion through an ultrasound. Planned Parenthood has disputed some of the details of her account.
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JOHNSON: I just thought, I can't do this anymore. And it was just like a flash.
MCCAMMON: Johnson founded And Then There Were None in 2012 with the goal of persuading others to follow suit. The group visits health centers where abortions are performed, holding up signs and urging workers to quit. For those who do, the organization offers financial assistance, resume advice and emotional support, including retreats a few times a year. Usually these gatherings are closed to media, but NPR was allowed to observe portions of a retreat in Texas in December. Annette Lancaster says she needs a place to talk about things that friends on both sides of the abortion debate often are reluctant to discuss.
ANNETTE LANCASTER: These are my sisters who I can talk to about things that I've seen and done in the clinic that other people would probably turn green and pass out about.
MCCAMMON: Lancaster is 40 and is now a stay-at-home mom. For several months, until May of 2016, she managed a Planned Parenthood health center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Lancaster says the work began to feel dark and morbid, and she's been seeing a therapist.
LANCASTER: I just now started being able to use the deep freezer in my home by going through therapy because we used to call the deep freezer the nursery. And we used to think that was funny.
MCCAMMON: Lancaster says she felt pressured to keep up the number of abortions performed at the clinic each month even when women seemed hesitant. In a statement to NPR, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic denies those claims and says Lancaster was fired for reasons related to her job performance. After her departure, Lancaster says she received enough money from And Then There Were None to cover a couple months' salary. The group also provided temporary financial support to Noemi Padilla, a 47-year-old nurse. She left her job last year at Tampa Women's Health Center in Florida.
NOEMI PADILLA: And I just woke up one Monday morning and I was like, this is it. Today is the day.
MCCAMMON: The clinic performs abortions well into the second trimester of pregnancy. Padilla says the work began to plague her conscience. In an interview with NPR, center director Dorothy Brown said several other workers have left with assistance from the group. Brown declined to be interviewed on tape, but says she thinks many who leave are motivated by money. Whatever the reasons why workers quit, they're not going in numbers large enough to threaten abortion access, says Elizabeth Toledo. She's a former vice president at Planned Parenthood who now runs a communications firm. But Toledo says groups like And Then There Were None can have an impact on workers and patients.
ELIZABETH TOLEDO: It's just another stressor on people who are already going to work in a highly charged political environment. And I don't think that they're going to be successful, but they are going to just make people have to deal with an additional layer of stress.
MCCAMMON: Abby Johnson says upon leaving Planned Parenthood, she also suffered from that highly charged environment. And the criticism of her hasn't just come from abortion rights supporters.
JOHNSON: When I came out of the industry there was still a lot of hate from the pro-life movement.
MCCAMMON: Early on, Johnson told the women gathered around her at this retreat, she recalled some abortion opponents saying she should burn in hell because of her work at the clinic.
JOHNSON: They were like, you either need to go to jail or hell. That was - like, those were the options (laughter).
MCCAMMON: But Johnson says those comments have faded as she's gradually been embraced by the anti-abortion rights movement as one of the rare people who's been a public figure on each side of this divisive issue. Sarah McCammon, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO SONG, "PLEASE DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD")
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