More than 400 people who oppose abortions listened to the story of a former Planned Parenthood employee turned anti-abortion activist Saturday at the annual Speak Out Illinois conference at an Oak Brook hotel.
The event, organized around the theme "Reclaim America for Life," brought together members of more than 35 anti-abortion groups to work toward renewing and continuing efforts to end abortions.
"My prayer for all of us today is that we leave here recharged ... and we keep that love of life going all year long," said keynote speaker Abby Johnson, a former employee of Planned Parenthood's clinic in Houston, Texas. "Babies are depending on it, moms are depending on it and clinic workers, just like me, are depending on it."
Johnson left her job as an abortion counselor after watching an ultrasound-assisted abortion in 2009 and seeing "that baby recoil and then try to flee from that abortion instrument," she said.
No longer able to justify abortions, she said she left her job a short while later. Johnson said she started a ministry in November to reach out to abortion clinic workers, and since then, 15 of them have left their jobs and changed their views.
While Johnson revealed why she advocates for the unborn after eight years of working for an abortion provider, about two dozen protesters stood outside the hotel, chanting in support of abortion rights.
"We are resisting their mission to take away abortion rights," said Corrie Westing of Chicago, a member of Occupy Chicago. "We thought we'd come on their turf this time instead of them always coming to our clinics and our spaces."
Protesters also included members of the International Socialist Organization and were endorsed by the Chicago Abortion Fund.
"Their overall message is they're against choice," Gaylon Alcaraz, executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, said Friday about groups involved in the Speak Out conference. "We support women, and regardless of what your moral beliefs are, women have the right to make that decision (about abortion) on their own."
Rev. Calvin Lindstrom of the Church of Christian Liberty in Arlington Heights led conference attendees in a prayer that God may change people's views on abortion.
"Even for those who are gathered outside this place to protest, Lord, we thank you, even for their testimony, for it is a sign that what we are speaking here is truth," Lindstrom said. "And we would pray even that their hearts might be changed."
Lindstrom encouraged participants to see the recent drop in abortions in Illinois as a small victory. The number of abortions reported in 2010 was 41,859, a decrease from the 46,077 reported in 2009, according to the most recent figures from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
When Johnson worked for Planned Parenthood, she said the organization's message was that abortions should be "safe, legal and rare."
"The only thing right now out of those three that we're living with is that it's legal," she said.
Carole Brite, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said in a statement Saturday afternoon the organization "adheres to the highest standards of medical care for all of our reproductive health care services."
She said more than 90 percent of the services Planned Parenthood of Illinois provides are preventive, such as birth control, STD testing and treatment and cancer screenings.
"Every we day we work to reduce the need for abortion through providing essential preventive health care services and accurate sexual health information," Brite said in a statement. "We're very pleased about the news that abortion numbers in Illinois are going down."
Anti-abortion activists said Saturday they believe they eventually will prevail in ending the procedure, not just decreasing its frequency.
"Don't ever feel discouraged in this movement," Johnson said. "We have the No. 1 guy on our side, and that's Jesus Christ, and we will win this war."