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A trip to a summer camp pushing to end abortion

More than 1,000 teens have gone through activist training at a popular anti-abortion summer camp in Southern California

Editor’s note: Welcome, Digg readers! When you’re finished reading this, you might also like to read Inside Mississippi’s last abortion clinic. Also, this article contains graphic images.

LOS ANGELES — On a sweltering June afternoon, nearly 70 teen campers swarmed Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theatre for the red carpet premiere of “Magic Mike XXL.”

But they weren’t there to collect autographs or gawk at the film’s stars, like Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello.

Embryos were on their agenda.

Clutching signs and banners, the campers chanted, “Sofía, unfreeze your daughters! Unfreeze your heart!”

Among the fans crowded on the Hollywood sidewalks, the teens hoped for a reaction from “Modern Family” star Sofía Vergara, who is engaged to Manganiello. 

As other American teens spend this summer learning to paddle canoes or ride horses, these campers’ team-building exercises include accosting Vergara about two embryos she froze while engaged to another man that are at the heart of a high-profile legal dispute.

“Shut the fuck up!” others in the crowd yelled.

“You know that’s not going to work, right?”

“You’ve been brainwashed!”

There was also curiosity. “Who are you with?”

“We’re survivors,” one camper replied.

If you’ve ever seen young people displaying graphic signs of aborted fetuses in public, there’s a good chance they’re connected to Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. Since 1998 the group, an anti-abortion Christian activism ministry in Southern California, has welcomed kids as young as 13 to its annual ProLife Training Camp. The camp, it says, prepares them “to stand against the worst evil of our day: abortion.”

Two campers demonstrate against actress Sofía Vergara during the premiere of “Magic Mike XXL” in Los Angeles, June 25, 2015. She is involved in a dispute with a former boyfriend over embryos they froze while they were a couple.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

The group’s name stems from the assertion that anyone born after Jan. 22, 1973, when the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion across the U.S., is a “survivor” of what it calls the “American abortion holocaust.”

The group says one-third of that generation has been killed by abortion.

The group has trained more than 1,000 high school and college students to be an “effective voice for the preborn.” For $425, the camp offers 10 days of workshops and field training, with speakers and advocates from across the U.S. lending their support. (Like other summer camps, there are also spaghetti and taco nights.) 

Last month America Tonight got an inside look at this year’s camp and the future of the anti-abortion movement.

“We wanted to give young people an opportunity to be a bold witness to their generation,” says Jeff White, a co-founder of the group and its CEO. “It was their friends who were getting killed. It’s their friends who were getting abortions. So it was only right that they be prepared to speak to that issue.”

He added, “We charge them with ending it, with fighting against it — without resting — till it’s over.”

ProLife Training might be the most influential and controversial in the expanding field of anti-abortion summer camps. In the last few years, similar camps have popped up nationwide, teaching young people the basics in their fight, from writing press releases to preaching their values in front of abortion clinics.

“These summer camps did not really exist five years ago,” says Lehigh University associate sociology professor Ziad Munson, who has studied the anti-abortion movement for 20 years. (He acknowledges that ProLife Training is something of an outlier.) “They weren’t a thing or a trend.”

‘We wanted to give young people an opportunity to be a bold witness to their generation. It was their friends who were getting killed. It’s their friends who were getting abortions. So it was only right that they be prepared to speak to that issue.’

Jeff White

co-founder, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust

As camps like ProLife Training multiply and garner more attention, a new generation of anti-abortion laws is challenging the pro-abortion-rights movement. In the first quarter of this year, legislators introduced 332 abortion restrictions in 43 states. From 2010 to 2014, the U.S. abortion rate dropped almost 12 percent and even more in states with strict new laws, according to an Associated Press survey last month.

In May the House of Representatives passed the Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later — described by Speaker John Boehner as “the most pro-life legislation to ever come before this body.” In Texas and Mississippi, the approval of admitting privileges laws is threatening to close most of their abortion clinics. It took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to keep 10 Texas clinics open temporarily until the justices decide whether to rule on the law’s constitutionality. (But Mississippi’s only clinic might close in the fall.)

So what role do camps like ProLife Training play in shaping the next generation of anti-abortion activists? Scott Klusendorf, who founded the Life Training Institute to help anti-abortion advocates defend their views in public, says these camps are indicative of the rising interest among young people who want to proudly defend anti-abortion views.

Youth of a movement

Images of dismembered, bloody fetuses were scattered across three blocks of sidewalks and the median on San Vicente Boulevard, just outside West Hollywood. Before the premiere, the campers’ target is Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which, according to Survivors, has created an “abortion cartel” that’s cultivating baby killers. The point is hammered home with a banner showing pictures and names of five doctors, drawing honks from cars whizzing by.

“They are decapitating and dismembering little babies!” one counselor yells into a megaphone. “Cedars-Sinai doesn’t care about women. They just want your money! This has to stop!”

The megaphone is handed to a camper who belts out, “You’re enabling the abortion carnel!”

It’s a teachable moment. “Cartel,” the counselor corrects her.

Two camp alumni outside Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

A security guard blocking campers from getting closer to the main entrance says this is the first time he has seen something like this in four years working there. A camper no older than 15 spots a group of doctors walking her way.

“Why do you choose to kill babies?” she shouts. They ignore her.

But some passersby respond.

“These idiots on the megaphone are lying,” one older woman says. “Go do something useful instead of telling my butt what to do.”

“I’m sorry I’m spending my time talking with an unintelligent person,” another woman says.

A third person yelled from his car, “Take that shit home!”

Around the corner, ProLife Training counselors set up lunch and snacks on the sidewalk. In waves, campers pause their demonstrating to gorge on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, deli meats, chips and watermelon.

While older men are often photographed protesting outside abortion clinics, Survivors is determined to show that a younger anti-abortion movement is afoot.

Except for the images of aborted fetuses they tote, these kids look like any other American teens — T-shirts, jeans, backward hats. The average camper is 16 to 17 years old, according to Survivors. Some have braces or multicolored hair. In one-on-one conversations, they’re well spoken and polite.

About two-thirds of campers are female. Each year, about half the campers are first-time participants. They have a mix of home-school and public, private and charter school backgrounds. The majority of this year’s campers are from California, with some from six other states and Mexico. Signs of Christianity are everywhere, but that’s just part of the ProLife Training experience, campers say. The same goes for conservatism: Mentions of Boehner, Sen. Ted Cruz and the Duggar family draw cheers. 

One of the few campers without a sign at Cedars-Sinai is Hannah Gomez. It’s her first ProLife Training camp, and she has grown more interested in anti-abortion issues. Now 17 and home-schooled in nearby La Mirada, her first taste of the issue came when she was about 12, praying with a group of friends in front of a clinic. 

Camper Hannah Gomez demonstrating at the “Magic Mike XXL” premiere.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

“That was my first time actually seeing pictures of aborted babies,” she says.

Gomez had no idea what to expect when she signed up. She has a background in theater and music, and she describes herself as not being a confrontational person. Videos of Survivors’ street demonstrations left her initially skeptical whether she could be confrontational.

“When you’re watching the videos, you’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I can’t do that,’ but Survivors has been so encouraging about what to do, so my expectations have changed from when I first came,” she says. “They actually go and teach you how to [talk about the movement], and being my age, you don’t really get an opportunity to do that. Most people think you’re too young, you’re too immature to handle those kinds of issues.”

Holding a sign on the raised median is Paul Wilson, attending his fourth ProLife Training Camp. For Wilson, a 16-year-old who will attend charter school in San Diego in the fall, understanding anti-abortion issues and where he stands was straightforward when he learned he was adopted at birth.

Paul Wilson demonstrating outside Cedars-Sinai.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

“My viewpoint was set in that me being adopted was the alternative to being aborted,” he says.

On this day, he’s happy to check out some cool cars. Other moments have been more memorable, like the time he helped persuade a woman about to enter an abortion clinic to turn away. That eye-opening scene underscored what’s at stake for him and fellow campers.

“We’re at a pro-life camp, and we’re talking about saving babies, and when you can really save a baby, that’s a huge morale booster,” Wilson says. “It’s not the most grand thing ever, but you really feel in your heart that you really accomplished what you came to do.”

Claire Miller, 19, from nearby Torrance was studying nuclear engineering at El Camino College, excelling in her physics and calculus classes. But a year and a half into school, she wasn’t passionate about her studies. So when the time came to re-enroll for the spring semester, she was reminded of Survivors’ campus outreach team, which introduces the abortion debate to high school and college campuses nationwide, and how she would love to be a part of it.

“I was thinking this would just be the perfect opportunity,” she says. “The day I was supposed to register for the next semester, I submitted an application to join Survivors, and I got accepted.”

The decision surprised her teachers, who didn’t understand why she wouldn’t continue in school, especially since she was doing so well. She did, however, have the support of her family, which made the choice that much easier.

Claire Miller, left, during a daylong demonstration as part of ProLife Training Camp.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

“My dad probably wishes that I went back to school in a way, just because it’s an education,” she says. “But he’s very proud of me too, I think.”

She has come a long way since her mom forced her to attend her first ProLife Training Camp four years ago. Miller was shy and feared she wouldn’t fit in. Today she says Survivors has created a culture of family that she and others can depend on when they’re looked at differently by friends, peers or strangers.

“When you come here, the people who are here realize that they’ve all been affected by abortion,” says Miller, now a team member with Survivors. “We were all in that situation where we could have been aborted.”

‘The Underground Railroad’

Jeff White doesn’t mince words about the state of the anti-abortion movement.

“We’re in the Underground Railroad stage in America,” he says.

Wearing a Bluetooth earpiece in his right ear and a plaid button-down shirt, White is set to park a Mercedes-Benz van outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Whittier, California, at 8 a.m. As one counselor says later, “You have to get there before they start killing.”

But before parking, it’s time for a quick prayer. Ten campers put away their phones, bow their heads and clench their hands.

“Lord, I pray for the women going in today,” the campers say. “I hope they have nothing left and fall to you.” They end with “We lift up your holy name. Amen.”

Jeff White speaks to camp attendees.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

White is the person who brings people together for their anti-abortion training, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1987 his wife asked him to go see a video about abortion one day after church. He didn’t want to go, fearing that he would be guilt-tripped. But his wife persuaded him to go, and he’s glad he did. The film, “The Silent Scream,” follows an abortion through the ultrasound process. [Editor’s note: The film contains graphic images.] Despite criticism from the medical community that the information presented in “The Silent Scream” is misleading to the public, the film, described by Time as a “shock-the-viewer indictment of abortion,” remains popular in the anti-abortion movement. 

The images have stuck with White. Inside the Norwalk church that hosts the camp’s training sessions, he recalled the image of a dead fetus that was burned by a saline solution, which was used an old form of abortion. White, the seventh of 11 kids and the father of 11 kids of his own, saw its eyebrows and face, imagining it without the burns.

“One of the things we talked to old leaders about that got them involved, almost across the board, was the actual images of the babies who had been killed by abortion,” says White, who is also a client advocate for people with drug and alcohol addictions. “We use the term ‘victim photography’ rather than ‘graphic images,’ because that’s what it is. Pictures of the victims of abortion are what moved me.”

After developing his passion about anti-abortion issues, White, carrying only a Bible, was walking through Times Square — back when addicts and prostitutes ruled that part of midtown Manhattan — when he ran into Operation Rescue, a leading anti-abortion Christian activist group, for the first time. (He went on to lead that group.) Ten years later, he founded Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust.

The Rev. James Conrad, right, engages with a passerby in Los Angeles about the anti-abortion movement.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

One of White’s staff members, the Rev. James Conrad, has been involved in the anti-abortion movement since he was in a stroller. As a child, he joined his mom, Cheryl Conrad, a co-founder of Survivors, as she protested abortion clinics, sometimes visiting her in jail. He left seminary to work with Survivors.

At Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, James Conrad, 30, spoke with a woman incensed that the group’s name includes the word “holocaust.” Wearing a “Life begins at conception” T-shirt, he never raises his voice. His style, he says, is all about having a conversation. “Is there a monopoly on the word?” he asked the woman.

She's taken aback, responding, “Listen to yourself! ‘Monopoly on the word ...’”

For almost two hours, Conrad and 18 campers patrol the sidewalks outside the Whittier Planned Parenthood, trying to engage with passersby. A man in a black pickup truck rolls down his window and offers his support — and a radical idea. “If you burned the building down, then they couldn’t do abortions in it,” he says.

One counselor says it’s a nonviolent movement. He drives off, honking his support anyway.

Truth and babies

Campers are taught about abortion doctors and the industry. They learn tips to use language like “alternatives” or “options” instead of “choice,” “baby” instead of “fetus” and “mother” instead of “pregnant woman.” Campers are instructed to carry cameras during public demonstrations. “You are CNN,” a counselor tells the kids.

According to Survivors, there hasn’t been a national conversation about abortion. White likens the struggles of anti-abortion advocates, specifically the lack of a national discussion on the issues, to the Black Lives Matter movement, which arose last year after a wave of deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police.

“They keep saying we’re having a conversation about race, but we’re not. We’re having a fistfight about race,” he says. “The Confederate flag is a national conversation. The abortion movement is in a national fistfight right now in an attempt to save lives.”

Sessions on violent imagery explore how photos helped shift public opinion on animal rights, Vietnam, the “war on terrorism,” drug abuse prevention and smoking.

When it comes to the civil rights movement, however, Survivors see not just history. They see a blueprint. Counselors point to Emmett Till and Rosa Parks — “humble servants” — as some of the great nonviolent martyrs and leaders in American history and the change they were able to bring.

Campers demonstrate outside a Planned Parenthood center in Whittier, California.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

“We use the civil rights movement because it’s the closest, most successful movement to what we do,” says Mark Harrington, the executive director of Created Equal, an Ohio-based anti-abortion organization offering instruction during the camp. “Who better to take the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. forward than us? This is the issue of our day.”

When counselors find out it’s not what they call a “killing day” at Planned Parenthood, meaning no abortions are scheduled, they decide it is time for some “chalk and awe,” writing anti-abortion messages in bright chalk on the sidewalks around the clinic.

Chalking is one of the less controversial practices that Survivors has used in the last few years. The group has had anything but smooth sailing, from the Jewish community’s pushback on the use of “holocaust” to local leaders saying the group’s use of “victim photography” borders on indecency. White says more than 100 group members have been arrested (mostly on charges stemming from public demonstrations), but none have lost a case.

The perception of ProLife Training as a Jesus camp that brainwashes youngsters — who have yet to fully form their worldviews — to regurgitate talking points for a cause is one that couldn’t be more inaccurate, White says.

“If they’re old enough to have an abortion, they’re certainly old enough to understand what it is and have an opinion as to whether it’s right or wrong,” he says. “I don’t think that I’m evil or brainwashing them. Someone needs to show me what I’m telling them is not true.”

The role Survivors plays in the anti-abortion movement is a fascinating one, especially with the historical gap between street activists and more organized anti-abortion groups. In his book “The Making of Pro-Life Activists,” Munson makes the case that the anti-abortion movement is pretty segmented, that there was little overlap among the parts of the movement and that exposure to the kind of graphic, in-your-face protesting that some groups take on can be polarizing for those new to the movement.

‘When you come here, the people who are here realize that they’ve all been affected by abortion. We were all in that situation where we could have been aborted.’

Claire Miller

member, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust

White is unfazed by the perception that the anti-abortion movement is severely segmented.

“I don’t care what the rest of the pro-life movement thinks about my tactics in telling the truth and saving babies,” he says. “You judge my tactics, judge my motives, judge whatever you want. Those are the two things I’m going to fight for.”

Campers weren’t standing outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre to catch a glimpse of the stars from “Magic Mike XXL.” They were there to protest.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

White describes Survivors as the Marine Corps of the anti-abortion movement — “We run toward the cries of injustice,” he says — insisting that training young people will go on as long as it’s needed to help make abortion illegal.

“Youth is always the energy that pushes a movement,” he says. “If we’re going to win, it’s going to be because of camps like this … One of [the campers] is going to come out and change the world around them.”

On the afternoon of the “Magic Mike XXL” premiere, I run into ProLife Training first-timer Gomez. She looks nervous. After telling me how one woman gave her the finger during a public demonstration the previous day, she says she had a sinking feeling in her stomach all day. The thought of being confrontational is wearing on her.

“I thought, ‘Ugh, today is the day,’ but it’s getting a little better,” she tells me.

The campers’ chanting comes to a pause when Tatum, Magic Mike himself, goes over to take photos with fans and sign anything that’s placed in front of him, including sticks holding up campers’ signs directed at Vergara. It’s a reminder that all the campers are still teenagers — mostly girls — and that the sight of a heartthrob can put anti-abortion issues on the back burner for a minute. 

Gomez at the “Magic Mike XXL” demonstration.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

Gomez, clad in a red Survivors shirt and holding a sign, seems to be getting into the chanting, yelling along with her fellow campers. When the megaphone is passed to her, she grabs it and keeps the chant going.

“Sofía, unfreeze your daughters! Unfreeze your heart!” she yells.

After a couple of minutes, she passes it to another young camper and starts to look more comfortable in her surroundings. Her face is covered in relief. I ask how it feels. 

“Scary,” she says, laughing. “But good.”

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