Buildings with baggage
Groups are turning old abortion centers into pro-life spaces, but the facilities’ horrific histories are difficult for many to overcome
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Austin and Bryan, Texas. Chattanooga, Tenn. Elkton, Md. Grand Rapids, Mich. Toledo, Ohio. Wichita, Kan. These are seven of the at least 20 cities where pro-life groups have taken over and repurposed former surgical abortion facilities. They are now crisis pregnancy centers, pro-life offices, or memorials.
The old Planned Parenthood building in Bryan is now headquarters for 40 Days for Life. The Choices Chattanooga pregnancy center occupies part of a building that used to belong to an abortion business. The Greater Toledo House of Prayer is constructing a memorial park on the former site of an abortion facility. The list goes on.
One building has flipped repeatedly: A Grand Rapids synagogue became a Greek Orthodox church that became a college performing arts center that became a legal office building that in 1994 became an abortion facility. During the following 10 years, 20,000 unborn babies died there. It is now an office building for LIFE International, a hub for global pro-life training and resources.
In eight other cities, pro-life clinics and activist groups have moved into former Planned Parenthood buildings where women obtained abortion pills or received referrals for surgical abortions. Two are in the small Iowa towns of Creston and Dubuque. The others are scattered from Washington state to Michigan.
It’s a nationwide trend: When old abortion facilities close down, pro-life groups move in. For some organizations, taking over the buildings where thousands of children died is a part of their strategic attack on abortion providers. To others, replacing an abortionist is just a bonus to other location benefits.
All these groups have faced obstacles in the process. They acquired creepy and filthy buildings and the bad memories that come with them. The biggest questions for these pro-life groups: Does preserving these places hurt post-abortive mothers and repentant abortionists—or help them heal?
When 40 Days for Life CEO Shawn Carney first walked into the former Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas, it was the first time he had ever entered a structure previously used for abortions: “It was a very sterile building. … It was creepy.” The creepiest part was the baby mobiles he saw hanging from the ceilings in the two rooms where an estimated 6,400 abortions took place.
Others I talked with described their buildings with similar words: sterile, clinical, cold. To counteract this sterility, staffers redecorated with their clients in mind. Andy Schoonover, executive director of Austin LifeCare (recently rebranded as The Source), tells how decorators replaced a “medical-grade tile” with a warm faux-wood flooring. They painted the walls light blue and brought in couches, patterned pillows, bohemian rugs, and succulents.
Others needed more than redecoration. Troy Newman of Operation Rescue recalls his first impression of the old Central Women’s Services building in Wichita: dusty, moldy, “stinks to high heaven.” The building had old carpet and stained walls. The recovery room featured 1970s recliners. This, he said, was where hundreds of women sat bleeding after their abortions: “You wouldn’t let your dog sit in these things.”
Newman described the sink between the two procedure rooms and its “super powerful” industrial strength garbage disposal. He said the abortionists used that disposal to get rid of babies’ remains. According to Newman, a plumber said the drain was clogged for about 10 feet with “biomatter”—which Newman said was the “old, rotting, decomposing flesh” of aborted babies. Workers replaced the old plumbing along with the drywall and windows.
Newman also said Central Women’s Services had left behind medical records and not disconnected its phones, so Operation Rescue staff took calls from the former abortion center’s patients. Leslee Unruh, founder of the Alpha Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Hannah Shady of LifeCare Clinic in Creston, Iowa, also mentioned finding patient files in the former Planned Parenthood buildings they acquired.
Denise Emerine is the founder of the Greater Toledo House of Prayer, which in 2014 bought a former abortion facility in Toledo with plans to demolish it and build a memorial park for the unborn on the site. On her first day in the building, Emerine saw a hospital gown on the floor, dried blood in the examining rooms, and a basement closet full of abortion vacuum equipment: “It was like a slaughterhouse. … It wasn’t like walking into a doctor’s office with everything crisp and clean.”
TWO MONTHS AFTER THE DEMOLITION, the Greater Toledo House of Prayer hosted a three-hour worship service on the land and invited other pro-life groups to join. Other pro-life organizations have held prayer services at their new sites, and staff members in Sioux Falls, Bryan, Wichita, and Creston had Catholic priests perform exorcisms on their buildings.
On April 13, 2019, Austin LifeCare hosted 75 people with Sharpie markers at the two sand-colored buildings that had been the home of Whole Woman’s Health. LifeCare volunteers, donors, sidewalk counselors, and churchgoers prayed as they walked through each of the rooms and wrote messages and Scripture on the walls. Many cried. Many sang.
In what had been the “product of conception room”—where abortion staffers made sure they had removed from wombs all the pieces of aborted babies—the 75 Sharpie wielders covered walls with names to represent the thousands of unnamed babies who had died there. Later, redecorators needed two coats of paint to conceal the names.
Sharpies were also the tool of choice at a 2014 prayer event at the former Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas. Catholic priests and Baptist preachers, former abortion providers and local pro-life activists all wrote verses on the walls. Some wrote about their miscarriages or their own abortions. In Wichita in 2007, pro-life construction workers posted Bible verses on walls and studs.
But some women, and sometimes the men involved, find it difficult to return to the scene of their abortions. Alpha Center in Sioux Falls moved into a former Planned Parenthood in 2000 but sold the building in 2008, partly because the pregnancy center had grown but also because the building had a bad effect on women who came back for post-abortive recovery. Founder Leslee Unruh said the building, despite symbolizing redemption, wasn’t worth the extra heartache: She wishes her organization had torn it down and built a park or memorial instead.
Patti Giebink was one of the physicians who performed abortions in Sioux Falls when the building was a Planned Parenthood center. She later became a Christian and is now on the Alpha Center’s board of directors. She faced her own difficulties with the building as a post-abortive doctor. The first time Giebink stepped into the building after it became the Alpha Center, almost a decade had passed since she had last been in the building.
The old carpet was gone and the building was cleaner, but the sink in the lab room was the same. There, at that sink, she used to examine the tissue of the aborted babies. There, only two times, she had seen that a piece of the baby was missing and had returned to the mother to take out the rest. Walking to that sink, said Giebink, “was overwhelming, and I think I made a pretty quick exit.” She said she hardly spent two minutes in the building.
Pat VanderKolk works at LIFE International in Grand Rapids, headquartered in a former abortion facility. Her abortion didn’t happen in this building but in a facility two minutes down the street—and that business is still open. She said post-abortive women do not want to work in a place where abortions occurred.
“It was like a slaughterhouse. … It wasn’t like walking into a doctor’s office with everything crisp and clean.”
The executive directors of pregnancy centers in Chattanooga and Creston are also concerned that their buildings’ former connection to abortion could deter local women from seeking healing. More than two decades have gone by since Choices Chattanooga moved into one half of the former abortion facility, but executive director Carol Ann Ferguson said most women in their post-abortion therapy program had abortions 20 to 50 years ago. For them, it’s traumatic to return to the place of their loss: That’s one reason Choices is planning to relocate this summer.
Hannah Shady, executive director of the Creston, Iowa, clinic, originally didn’t like the idea of opening a clinic in a former Planned Parenthood building. When she first heard about the plan, she feared the building’s history would keep women and couples from coming for help. Even though that Planned Parenthood site didn’t perform surgical abortions, it did provide telemed abortions, using videoconferencing to prescribe abortion-inducing pills to women.
Shady didn’t “want to be involved in going into a place like that where there’s already so much hurt.” But she now wonders if her concern about the building was “just me listening to myself about that and not listening to the calling from God.” Shady recalls a former Planned Parenthood client who compared her warm welcome at LifeCare with Planned Parenthood’s coldness.
In Grand Rapids, VanderKolk’s connection to the building turned out to be a part of her healing process: Before joining the LIFE staff in May 2010, VanderKolk spent a month and a half that winter making weekly visits to the basement of LIFE’s headquarters. Before LIFE moved in, the basement had been the surgical wing, where the abortions took place. Now, a large open prayer room, hung with deep blue and bright gold banners, claims the space that once held a fluorescent-lit surgical room, waiting room, and recovery room.
In the prayer room, VanderKolk often sat on the red, richly patterned carpet with her back to the rough stone wall. She’d ask God, “What do you want?” A hallway away, one of the former surgical rooms sits as it would have looked under the abortion business: beige walls, blue linoleum flooring, an exam table, a vacuum aspiration machine, and shiny metal tools.
During her final drive to the LIFE headquarters at 72 Ransom Street, VanderKolk decided it would be her last trip to the building. But, before leaving that day, she received a job offer from a LIFE staff member. “I didn’t want to work in a pro-life place,” VanderKolk said, “because that says to me that … what I did was wrong.” She said she wanted to avoid the building and any connection to her past abortion, but she took the job. Looking back, she said it was God’s way of bringing her full circle.
About five years ago, VanderKolk met a woman whose abortion had taken place in the LIFE International building. She invited the woman to visit. In the prayer room, they looked at pictures of what the room had looked like as an abortion recovery room. The woman had “a fallen look on her face” as she looked at the pictures and told VanderKolk she remembered sitting in that room. The woman then hurried to the bathroom at the end of the hall.
When she came back, she was teary-eyed and “her complexion had almost turned white.” The woman told her, “I remember being in that bathroom and throwing up.” At the end of the visit, VanderKolk and the woman went up to the third story of the building to the paper shredder. VanderKolk watched as the woman shredded the receipt and medical records from her abortion. The woman hooted in celebration as the paperwork disappeared.
Some pro-life organizations have faced little conflict when buying or renting a building previously used for abortions—because the abortion business had already moved or closed. In Creston, Iowa, Planned Parenthood had left a building several months before LifeCare board members began to consider buying it. Leaders negotiated with a landlord unaffiliated with either side of the abortion debate, according to executive director Hannah Shady.
Troy Newman, executive director of Operation Rescue, tells how he used a third party to make an offer on the building in Wichita, Kan., that housed abortion provider Central Women’s Services. He used the third party because he thought the current landlord would try to sell to another pro-abortion landlord. When Newman closed on the building and Central Women’s Services asked to renew the lease, Newman evicted it and made the building Operation Rescue headquarters. Central Women’s Services accused Newman of being deceptive by using a third party, but Newman said, “I don’t believe the enemies of God are deserving of the truth.”
Most other pro-life groups that used third party buyers did not echo this aggressive language or adopt Newman’s strategic approach. When a Planned Parenthood center in Bryan, Texas, closed in 2013, the Hope Pregnancy Center of Brazos Valley partnered with 40 Days for Life and made an offer on the building. Hope board member Catherine McIntyre said board members foresaw pushback and contemplated using a third party for the negotiations but decided against it and made an offer as Hope. Planned Parenthood initially said no, but after the building sat empty for a year and Hope put in another offer, Planned Parenthood accepted. 40 Days for Life CEO Shawn Carney said the abortion giant ended up selling for 40 percent of the original asking price. —L.H.
Former surgical abortion facilities that are now pro-life pregnancy centers, offices, or memorials—plus other converted facilities
1. Anchorage, Alaska: Community Pregnancy Center
2. Ashland, Pa.: Mercy House of Ashland (undergoing renovations, not yet open)
3. Austin, Texas: LifeCare/The Source
4. Baton Rouge, La.: National American Holocaust Memorial
5. Bettendorf, Iowa: Women’s Choice Center
6. Bryan, Texas: 40 Days for Life
7. Chattanooga, Tenn.: National Memorial for the Unborn and Choices Chattanooga
8. Elkton, Md.: Cecil Pregnancy and Family Resource Center
9. Fayetteville, N.C.: Agape Pregnancy Support Services
10. Grand Rapids, Mich.: LIFE International
11. Hialeah, Fla.: Heartbeat of Miami (fourth location)
12. Lansing, Mich.: New Life Center
13. Manassas, Va.: Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic
14. Miami, Fla.: Heartbeat of Miami (first location)
15. Ocala, Fla.: Interfaith Emergency Services
16. Severna Park, Md.: Severna Park Pregnancy Clinic
17. Springfield, Mo.: Missouri Baptist Children’s Home
18. Toledo, Ohio: Hope Park
19. Wichita, Kan.: Operation Rescue
20. York, Pa.: Human Life Services
Former facilities that did not offer surgical abortions but were affiliated with the abortion industry or offered drug-induced abortions
21. Amarillo, Texas: Hope+Choice (once a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood)
22. Carson City, Nev.: Life Choices (site of a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood; same building, different space)
23. Creston, Iowa: LifeCare Clinic (once a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood; performed telemed abortions)
24. Dubuque, Iowa: Clarity Clinic (once a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood; performed telemed abortions)
25. Middlebury, Vt.: Pregnancy Center of Addison County (site of a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood; same building, different space)
26. Milwaukee, Wis.: CareNet Milwaukee (doctors who performed abortions worked there, but we couldn’t confirm that they did abortions in the building)
27. Sunnyside, Wash.: Life Options (once a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood)
28. Valparaiso, Ind.: The Women’s Center of Northwest Indiana (site of a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood; same building, different space)
29. Warsaw, Ind.: Right to Life of North Central Indiana (site of a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood; same building, different space)
30. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Family Life Services (once a nonsurgical Planned Parenthood)
Formerly Flipped Buildings
Former abortion facilities once used by pro-life organizations that have now moved out
31. Lubbock, Texas: Generation Covenant (once used two former Planned Parenthood buildings)
32. Sioux Falls, S.D.: Alpha Center (once in a former abortion building; Alpha Center relocated; now a sandwich shop)
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