November 4, 1997, was the day Eric Craig Harrah, an abortion clinic operator and open homosexual, publicly proclaimed faith in Christ. He walked away from the State College, Pa., abortion mill he operated and, within a week, testified of his conversion in an Assembly of God church. Within two weeks, he was giving his testimony in other churches. Within three months, he was giving interviews to reporters. Within six months, he was on the pro-life speaking circuit, giving talks at fundraising banquets put on by crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). Soon the media divisions of some major Christian organizations were interviewing Mr. Harrah and running his conversion story. Rejoice, print and broadcast stories proclaimed: Mr. Harrah believes the Bible is true, and that Jesus Christ has saved him.
Mr. Harrah doesn't believe that now.
During 1998 and 1999 Mr. Harrah was the anti-abortion hero, the trophy convert, the hottest new face at pro-life fundraising events. But early this year he abandoned pro-life activism, forced out under a cloud of unstable behavior and suspected theft, lying, and drug abuse (see sidebar). Now, at 32, he has renounced Christianity and returned to homosexuality.
The wreckage of Mr. Harrah's short and dazzling pro-life career evokes questions. Did Christians closest to Mr. Harrah push him toward celebrity too quickly, short-circuiting his healing process? Did prominent ministries and Christian media ignore warnings about his credibility and thereby fuel his meteoric rise with their own star power? Had he been sheltered from the Christian "star system," with its voracious appetite for fresh faces and sensational testimonies, might things be different?
Joan Appleton, formerly the head nurse at a Falls Church, Va., abortion clinic, believes so. Ms. Appleton now works with Pro-Life Action Ministries and The Centurions, a group that helps former abortion workers and activists to reorder their lives-a process that can take many years. "Eric Harrah was never put in a position where he had to make changes in his life or take steps toward healing before he began speaking on behalf of the pro-life movement," she said.
Some Christians foresaw problems. During Mr. Harrah's arc through the pro-life firmament, two factions emerged to warn ministries, media, and even Mr. Harrah's first post-conversion pastor Paul Grabill not to promote him too quickly. The factions had different motives. One group consisted of pro-life activists who felt Mr. Harrah's stories were not credible; they believed he would ultimately damage the movement. The other group believed it unscriptural to trot a new believer so quickly into the spotlight, particularly a spotlight as harsh as that of abortion politics. New Christians, they contended, needed time to grow in their faith.
Former abortion clinic director Carol Everett was in the second group. "I told Paul Grabill that he needed to disciple Eric, hold his hand, and help him," said Ms. Everett, who says the Christians who helped in her conversion from abortion to Christ discipled her daily for nearly two years before letting her go public. "I begged him not to let Eric continue speaking. I told him, 'When someone gets in Eric's face and asks him how he thinks he can be forgiven after what he's done, he has to know who God is," and that forgiveness comes from God. Ms. Everett said Mr. Grabill "patted me on the head over the phone" and told her Mr. Harrah would be fine.
Referring to the sensational conversion of the woman whom liberal litigators used as "Roe" in Roe vs. Wade, Ms. Everett says, "I believe Paul Grabill wanted Eric to be his Norma McCorvey."
Did he? "Yes," Mr. Grabill told WORLD. "It was a father-son thing ... he was living under my roof." Mr. Grabill now admits he made mistakes. He told WORLD his own pride made him believe he could shelter Mr. Harrah from criticism, both fair and unfair, that would come with an early spotlight. Mr. Grabill believed he could "accelerate Eric's discipleship process.... I was sure he was the exception to the rule."
The desire for hero-converts, says Pro-Life Action Ministries director Brian Gibson, is one factor that drives the pro-life star system. "We in the pro-life community so desperately want to have things we can point to as victories, that show we're winning the hearts and minds of the people. We in leadership have taken those who have left the [pro-abortion side] and held them up as our trophies," Mr. Gibson explained. "That hasn't been the original intention, but it seems to be the net result."
Cel Levatino agrees. A former abortion clinic nurse who left the industry in 1985 along with her husband, former abortionist Tony Levatino, she grieved when seeing Mr. Harrah and Ms. McCorvey thrust into the public eye so quickly. "When someone like Norma or Eric renounces abortion, it's almost impossible for us to restrain ourselves from wanting to use them," Mrs. Levatino said. "Exploit is a bit of a strong word, but it's applicable."
Mrs. Levatino stresses that such exploitation is not malicious, but rather a case of good intentions gone awry. Mr. Grabill, for example, explains that he encouraged Mr. Harrah's public speaking "as a means of giving God glory for Eric's dramatic conversion, and as a means of [Eric] having an income for medical, legal bills, etc."
Initially, Mr. Harrah charged speaking fees as low as $250, but as demand for his speeches grew, so did his price tag. CPCs in Youngstown, Ohio, and Ontario, Calif., paid between $750 and $1,000 for 45-minute presentations. When visiting cities, Mr. Harrah spoke at local churches in exchange for "love offerings." Offerings from one 1,500-member church in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., totaled $3,000.
In the star system, the income factor cuts both ways. Not only can the new convert-sometimes newly unemployed-earn a needed paycheck, but his sensational conversion story and inside scoop about the abortion industry also can jumpstart pro-life fundraising. Mr. Gibson's own group has several times had former abortion employees speak at fundraisers. He says those speakers drew larger attendance and, consequently, raised more money. "When you're a struggling nonprofit supporting a horribly un-PC issue and suffering open hostility from the legal system, you don't turn your back easily to the thing that's going to bring the money in," Mr. Gibson told WORLD, admitting that his own organization has sometimes fallen prey to this trap.
Mr. Harrah shattered CPC fundraising records, sometimes motivating pledges that were triple or quadruple those inspired by other speakers. At the Ontario, Calif., CPC, for example, attendees at the fundraising banquet where he spoke pledged $56,000. The most raised by that CPC at prior banquets was $12,000.
Mr. Harrah says he was fully aware of his own fundraising value. "I felt exploited and I felt used," he told WORLD. "I called myself their 'private dancer,' you know, like the Tina Turner song: 'dancer for money, do what you want me to do.' Nobody gave a darn how I was. Nobody asked how I was doing spiritually ... they just wanted me to stand up and talk bad about the abortion industry."
Philip Ney, founder of The Centurions, has studied the healing cycle faced by abortion workers and activists. He says paying them sends all the wrong messages: "Even Hitler did not tear babies apart with his own hands," he explained. "Had he stopped slaughtering Jews, would we have paid him to go on the speaking circuit and talk about it? No." Paying an abortion worker who has recently left the industry, he contends, puts that person on a pedestal and sends an inappropriate message of celebrity.
Sudden celebrity also can create a bizarre disconnect for the former abortion worker, Dr. Ney says-and a barrier to true healing. "While working at the abortion clinic, I was referred to by many pro-lifers as a murderer and a baby-killer," remembered Joan Appleton. "After I left the abortion industry, I became a hero almost overnight. Suddenly I became courageous, warm, and loving in the eyes of many pro-lifers.... They embraced me as their own and told me God had forgiven me but I must speak out now on behalf of human life and everything would be OK." But it wasn't OK. Eventually, Ms. Appleton was hit square in the face by her role in the killing of human beings. It was part of the healing process her celebrity had allowed her to avoid.
Few data exist about the struggles faced by former abortion workers and activists. But a study of 19 such individuals by Dr. Ney showed that one-third struggle psychologically and often still feel guilty, two of five have problems with substance abuse, and 100 percent feel they were moderately or completely dehumanized by the abortion industry. Mr. Harrah tried to regain his humanity on the dais. While not denying he at first relished his newfound celebrity, he told WORLD he kept up a relentless speaking schedule as a way to make up for those babies whose deaths he had facilitated.
Mr. Harrah's speaking career began at churches and CPCs, then was further fueled by Christian media. Cornerstone Television, Pentecostal Evangel magazine, and The 700 Club all ran stories about Mr. Harrah in 1998 and 1999, as did media divisions of Focus on the Family, Life Dynamics, Coral Ridge Ministries, and Life Issues Institute. The more Mr. Harrah appeared in print and on the air, the more demand grew for his speaking. Even when questions were raised about his credibility, some organizations went ahead with their coverage of Mr. Harrah.
In July 1998, for example, Life Issues Institute published an interview with Mr. Harrah in its newsletter Life Issues Connector. Three months later, even though four pro-life activists had contacted Life Issues Institute with specific evidence of lies Mr. Harrah had told during speaking engagements, as well as examples of unstable behavior, Life Issues Connector published a second interview with Mr. Harrah, providing him with more positive coverage. The newsletter cited unprecedented reader response to the first Harrah story. Editor Brad Mattes told WORLD the Life Issues Connector interviews were not published as a way to promote Mr. Harrah. "We were not saying, 'This is a credible person, this is a truthful person,'" Mr. Mattes said. "We were trying to expose the dirty little secrets of the abortion industry and I think we did that."
Cornerstone Television and Life Dynamics also ran stories featuring Mr. Harrah after being warned he might not be credible. Former abortion nurse Joan Appleton says she warned Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics before he produced a video featuring Mr. Harrah, but Mr. Crutcher said he did not remember that. Concerning the Harrah claim to have owned 26 abortion clinics at age 22, however, Mr. Crutcher said, "We knew that was [expletive]."
As late as last fall, Christian media organizations were still generating positive stories about Mr. Harrah. In November 1999, The 700 Club (which apparently did not receive a warning) aired a 14-minute story on Mr. Harrah, who by then had long doubted Christianity. He also was using drugs and skipping speaking dates while keeping deposit money, but he still maintained a façade of faith. "I do not subscribe to this theory of gradual withdrawal from sin," Mr. Harrah said near the end of the 700 Club segment: "I took my sins and laid them at the foot of the cross and I left them there."