LOS ANGELES – On a sweltering June afternoon, nearly 70 teen campers swarmed Hollywood's famous Chinese Theatre awaiting 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 or Joe Manganiello.
Embryos were on their agenda.
Clutching signs and banners, the campers chanted: “Sofía! Unfreeze your daughters! Unfreeze your heart!”
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 f*** 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 with Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. For 18 years, the anti-abortion Christian activism ministry in Southern California has welcomed kids as young as 13 to its annual ProLife Training Camp. The camp, they say, prepares them “to stand against the worst evil of our day: abortion.”
Two campers chant at actress Sofía Vergara during the red-carpet premiere of "Magic Mike XXL."Timothy Bella/America Tonight
As they put it, one-third of that generation has been killed by abortion.
In the 18 years since the first camp, 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, co-founder and 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.”
Survivors 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 essentials – from writing press releases to preaching their values in front of abortion clinics.
“These summer camps did not really exist five years ago,” said Lehigh University associate sociology professor Ziad Munson, who has studied the anti-abortion movement for 20 years. (He acknowledged that Survivors was 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 Whiteco-founder, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust
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 Survivors, play 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 of 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.
“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 lady said. "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 said.
A third person yelled from his car: “Take that shit home!”
Around the corner, Survivors 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 white 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, backwards hats. The average camper is between 16 and 17, 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 of the campers are first-time participants. They have a mix of homeschool, public, private and charter-school backgrounds. The majority of this year’s campers are from California, but they attract young people from another six states and Mexico. Signs of Christianity are everywhere, but that’s just part of the Survivors 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 Survivors camp, but she’s grown more interested in anti-abortion issues. Now 17 and homeschooled in nearby La Mirada, Gomez’s first taste of the issue came when she was around 12, praying with a group of friends in front of a clinic.
“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 theatre and music, and she described 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 said, adding: “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 elevated median is Paul Wilson, attending his fourth Survivors 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.
On this day, he’s happy to check out some cool cars. Other moments have been more memorable, like the time he helped convince a woman about to enter an abortion clinic turn away. That eye-opening scene underscored what’s at stake for him and fellow Survivors.
“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 said. “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 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, Miller, 19, 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 said. “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.
Miller has come a long way since her mom forced her to attend her first Survivors camp four years ago. She 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 said.
Wearing a Bluetooth earpiece in his right ear and a plaid button-down shirt, White is set to park a Mercedes-Benz van outside Planned Parenthood in Whittier, California, at 8 a.m. As one counselor puts it to me 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.
The prayer continues: “I hope they have nothing left and fall to you.” They finish: “We lift up your holy name. Amen.
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 had been burned by a saline solution, an old form of abortion. White, the seventh of 11 kids and father to 11 kids of his own, saw her eyebrows and face, imagining her 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,” said White, who is also a client advocate for people with drug and alcohol addiction. “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 toward 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.
Back at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, Conrad, 30, spoke with a woman, incensed that the group's name includes the word “holocaust." Wearing an “Life Begins at Conception” T-shirt, Conrad 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: “Listen to yourself! ‘Monopoly on the word...’”
For almost two hours, Conrad and 18 campers patrol the sidewalks outside Planned Parenthood in the neighborhood of Whittier, 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.”
One counselor responded that they're 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 in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.
“They keep saying we’re having a conversation about race, but we’re not. We’re having a fistfight about race,” White 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 terror," drug abuse prevention and smoking.
When it comes to the civil rights movement, however, Survivors don't just see 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.
When counselors find out it’s not 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 surrounding Survivors in the last few years. Just a simple Google search of the group offers a glimpse of an existence that’s been anything but smooth sailing – from the Jewish community’s pushback on the use of the word “holocaust,” to local leaders saying the group’s use of “victim photography” borders indecency. White said more than 100 Survivors have been arrested (mostly on charges stemming from the public demonstrations), but none have lost a case.
Only 18 years old, the perception of Survivors as a Jesus camp that brainwashes youngsters – who have yet to fully form their worldview – to regurgitate talking points for a cause is one that, White says, couldn’t be more inaccurate.
“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 said. “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’s research found that the anti-abortion movement is pretty segmented, that there was little overlap in the different parts of the movement, and that exposure to the kind of graphic, in-your-face protesting that some groups take on can be very 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."
team member, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust
“I don’t care what the rest of the pro-life movement thinks about my tactics in telling the truth and saving babies,” White says. “You judge my tactics, judge my motives, judge whatever you want. Those are the two things I’m going to fight for.”
White describes Survivors as the Marine Corps of the anti-abortion movement – “We run toward the cries of injustice” – saying 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 said. “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 Gomez, the first-timer at Survivors. She looks nervous. After telling me how one lady gave her the finger during a public demonstration the previous day, she said 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 momentary pause when Tatum – "Magic Mike" himself – comes 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 backburner for a minute.
“Sofía! Unfreeze your daughters! Unfreeze your heart!”
After a couple minutes, she passed it to another young camper, and started to look more comfortable in her surroundings. Her face is covered in relief. I asked how she was feeling.
“Scary,” she said, laughing. “But good.”