WASHINGTON For Abby Johnson, the closing of a single Planned Parenthood center demonstrated her dramatic reversal from abortion clinic director to leading pro-life advocate.
But for pro-lifers throughout the United States, it marked another exhibit in a hopeful trend abortion centers are shutting down at an unprecedented rate. The total so far this year is 44, according to a pro-life organization that tracks clinic operations.
None was more telling for Johnson than the mid-July closing of the Planned Parenthood center in Bryan, Texas. It came less than four years after Johnson, burdened by her involvement with abortion, walked out of that clinic as its director and into the offices of the Coalition for Life.
"Knowing that the former abortion clinic I once ran is now closing is the biggest personal victory of my life," Johnson said in a written statement after the announcement of the shutdown. "From running that facility, to then advocating for its closure, and now celebrating that dream ... it shows that my life has indeed come full circle."
Since her celebrated conversion from Planned Parenthood director, Johnson has started a ministry to help workers leave the abortion industry. She has pledged, as she said in July, to "fight until every abortion clinic in this country has shut its doors."
This year, 42 clinics that provided surgical abortions have shut their doors, and two that offered chemical abortions by drugs also have closed, according to Operation Rescue, which monitors closings and health and safety violations by clinics nationwide. That number far surpasses the 25 surgical clinics shutdown last year and the 30 in 2011, by Operation Rescue's count. While others estimate a smaller number of closings, the pattern is clear.
Some of the shutdowns have been of major clinics. For instance, Virginia's No. 1 abortion provider closed, The Washington Post reported in July. NOVA Women's Healthcare in Fairfax, Va., shut down after state and local governments enacted regulations the abortion provider appeared unable to meet. The northern Virginia clinic performed 3,066 abortions in 2012 and 3,567 in 2011.
The reasons given for the upswing in closings are varied even among pro-lifers. They include:
• the increasing state regulation and oversight of clinics;
• a growth in pro-life opinion and activity, and
• a decline in the abortion rate.
In some cases, clinics have shut down when abortion doctors retired or were no longer licensed.
State legislatures enacted 69 pro-life laws this year, according to a report released Thursday (Sept. 5) by Americans United for Life. In all, 48 states considered about 360 such proposals in 2013, AUL reported.
The legislative action this year continued a recent trend in states: 70 "life-affirming measures" became law in 2011 and 38 in 2012, according to AUL.
Some measures have targeted making the procedure and clinics safer for women, and have helped escalate the number of clinic shutdowns. This year, states such as Alabama, North Carolina and Texas passed varied laws either requiring abortion clinics to meet the same health and safety standards as outpatient surgical centers, or authorizing the state to enforce such requirements. Also, in 2013, North Dakota and Wisconsin joined Alabama and Texas in mandating abortion doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals.
While pro-lifers assert the laws are for the protection of women, abortion rights advocates argue their purpose is to stop abortion. Regardless, the result appears to be abortion clinics are being held accountable in ways they have not been previously.
"Considering the growing body of medical evidence confirming the health risks of abortion for women, abortion cannot be left in the hands of an unmonitored, unregulated and uncaring industry feeding off fear and federal subsidies," AUL President Charmaine Yoest said in a written statement.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization affiliated with the abortion rights movement, charged in June such laws "are a solution in search of a problem, a cynical ploy to advance an agenda that seeks to make it more and more difficult for women to obtain an abortion, with the ultimate goal of eliminating U.S. women's access to safe and legal abortion."
The increased state government oversight of clinics is a response to pro-lifers spotlighting abuses by abortion providers, and to the scandals uncovered in recent years, said Cheryl Sullenger, Operation Rescue's senior policy advisor. Her research has produced disciplinary action against various abortion doctors.
Foremost among the scandals was that of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell and his Philadelphia clinic. The regulatory failures in Pennsylvania appear to have made an impression on officials in other states.
Gosnell received three consecutive life sentences in May for the first-degree murder of three born-alive babies. Those children were only three of hundreds at least six months into gestation who were killed outside the womb after induced delivery at a clinic criticized for its unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
A 2011 grand jury report criticized the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Department of State for failing to oversee the clinic properly. Gosnell's clinic had not been inspected since 1993 despite many complaints, according to the report.
While the actions of state legislatures and agencies appear to have contributed to clinic shutdowns, the growing activism of pro-lifers also has been an important ingredient, said the national director of 40 Days for Life.
"I believe the increase in closures is due to record numbers of Christians praying for an end to abortion, and getting actively involved in pro-life efforts where they live -- recognizing that change is not going to come from politicians in Washington, D.C., anytime soon," David Bereit wrote in a statement.
Since 2007, 40 Days has conducted its semi-annual campaigns of peaceful prayer vigils outside abortion clinics in more than 500 cities nationally and internationally. More than 575,000 people have participated, and 40 Days reports 39 clinics have closed permanently after their campaigns.
Both Bereit and Sullenger believe even more clinic closures are in the offing.
"The momentum is shifting dramatically in the pro-life direction, and as even more people answer the call to 'speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves' and 'rescue those being led to the slaughter,'" Bereit said, citing verses in Proverbs 31 and 24, respectively, "I believe we will see many more abortion centers closing in the near future."
Sullenger said in a written statement, "We do anticipate an increase in the number of abortion clinics as new laws are enacted and inspections increase. Enforcement of laws on the books has always been the key. We simply have never found an abortion clinic that complies with the law on all points.
"Couple that with a downward trend in abortion numbers and increased pro-life sentiment, [and] the abortion industry is in financial trouble," she said before adding a caveat. "However, an influx of money from the government via [the 2010 health-care reform law] and private sources could artificially keep some clinics open."