Washington, DC -- Entering the abortion business was easy, says Joan Appleton, a former head nurse at the Commonwealth Clinic, an abortion facility in Falls Church, Va. But leaving it 12 years ago, she says, was something else.
"If I had known in 1989 what I know today," she says, "I would have gone to the nearest bridge and jumped. The horror of what you've been involved in doesn't come to you right away."
Today Miss Appleton, 53, operates the Centurions, which offers therapy to people who have left the abortion industry. Its international component, the Society of Centurions based in Victoria, British Columbia, is having a conference this week in Copenhagen.
Named after the Roman soldier who presided over Christ's crucifixion, the society was founded 10 years ago by pro-life Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Philip Ney when he began assembling what he calls "psychological methods" to help former abortion facility workers.
Dr. Ney remembers, "A male gynecologist said to me, 'If you are concerned about some of these problems, how about helping people like me who used to [perform] abortions and who gave it up but are having a struggle with the transition?'"
According to the pro-abortion Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortion facilities has dropped since the early 1980s. From a high of 2,908 in 1982, the number dropped 30 percent to 2,042 in 1996, the most recent year for which the group has statistics.
Appleton says she is increasingly sought after by nurses, receptionists, security officers and doctors who wish to leave the abortion business. Last year, she helped 22 persons, she says, and 60 persons have contacted her over the past five years.
"The doctors get out because they can't get rid of the nightmares," she says. "But you can't find a clergyman who knows what you're going through.
The process is fraught with potential disasters -- such as the black eye the pro-life movement suffered last year when one of its recent converts, former abortion practitioner Eric Harrah, a born-again Christian, renounced his faith and returned to his former lifestyle. In November 1997, Harrah left his State College, Pa., abortion facility and converted to Christianity with the help of several people from a local Assemblies of God church. He soon appeared on local TV explaining his conversion.
The following summer, he was featured in the National Enquirer as being sought after by investigators working for former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who had heard of Monica Lewinsky's 1996 abortion and Harrah's reputation as "abortionist to the stars."
Harrah is a "flamboyant, outspoken individual," says Ron Fitzsimmons of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers. "A number of people within our movement knew Eric had personal issues he was dealing with," he says. "He was someone you couldn't ignore."
Meanwhile, Harrah's reputation as a spaker for pro-life causes skyrocketed.
"Eric moved out of the abortion industry, and the next day he was on the speaking circuit," says Carol Everett, who operated a Dallas abortion facility before leaving the business in 1983. "But I never trusted him because he seemed to fabricate his story as he went. Everybody sees someone who's a new pro-lifer and wants to get that story out as fast as possible. But we need time to change. You just don't turn 180 degrees and step into another culture."
Appleton says it took her seven years to switch "cultures."
"I encountered many pro-life picketers and sidewalk counselors," she says of her five years at the Falls Church abortion facility. "For the most part, I hated them all." But one woman, Debra Braun, befriended her. Appleton followed her friend to Minnesota in early 1991 and attended one of Dr. Ney's therapy sessions in 1995. She calls it "hell week."
"We started at 8 in the morning and finished at 10 at night," she says of Dr. Ney's therapy. "I was there with a couple other former abortion providers and together we helped one another give humanity to the unborn babies we helped kill."
"Some make it, some don't," the doctor says. "The ones who don't sort of implode. They may revert to drinking, trying to struggle with their anger and guilt, hiding out in a series of rationalizations. They have to deal with all sorts of problems: guilt, shame, anger. They feel they've been badly used by their colleagues, doing the dirty work for other doctors. These people also feel they are doing a job for society -- that other people are making them do it. They feel used. When we attempted to find out what got people into the abortion industry, they said it was the power and the money that attracted them. The power was power over life and death."
Dr. Ney, who is near retirement, has since expanded to a more international sphere.
"I get quite a number of East Bloc ex-abortionists," he says. "As for the Russians, they are gradually finding a voice and protesting what is happening to them, telling the state they cannot be expected to do that." Russian women average 2 and 1/2 to four abortions, according to the World Health Organization.
American women who have left the business say that religious conversions played a prominent part. Dr. Beverly McMillan, an obstetrician in Jackson, Miss., who opened up that state's first abortion facility in 1975, says reading Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking" gave her second thoughts.
"I was depressed to the point of suicide, and I think the abortions had something to do with this," she says. "With the technique I used, we had to reassemble the parts. It just got too real. It wasn't guilt that got me out. It was looking at the bodies and realizing five minutes earlier, this was all together in one beautiful piece."
She left the business in 1978 and has since returned to the Catholic Church, in which she was raised. She also has attended one of Dr. Ney's workshops.
Everett, the former Dallas abortion facility operator, converted to Christianity in July 1983, 10 years after she aborted her third child. "The last month I was at my clinic, I made $13,000," she says, "and that was considered low. You don't walk out of that and suddenly change."
In fact it took 12 years of near-constant counseling to change. She also named the child she aborted "Heidi." Now living in Austin, she operates the Heidi Group, a group that helps crisis pregnancy centers with strategic planning and fund raising.
Appleton calls the child she aborted "Cecilia" and every day draws a picture "of an unborn child that I helped kill." She gives the baby a name and a personality, speaks and prays with the child, then "I ask God to receive this child into His kingdom."
Dr. Ney says this is all a part of restoring people's humanity. "If you dehumanize others, you dehumanize yourself," he says. "If you stop your ears to the silent pleading of a little life, then you become insensitive to the prompting of your own heart and mind."