Forced Abortions, Courtesy Of Scientology?S

The Church of Scientology is rife with both celebrity members and high-profile scandals. In the latter category, there's a new crisis: Former members of the religious order Sea Organization are claiming they were coerced and pressured into having unwanted abortions.

More than a dozen women have come out against Sea Org, reports the St. Petersburg Times. They say the organization began pressuring them (or women they knew) to have abortions from the moment they got wind of the pregnancy. Many of the members were young, relatively vulnerable women, who had known no life outside the church. Instead of being presented with their options, these teens were made to feel as though they didn't have a choice. Pregnant women were shunned by other members, called "degraded beings," and criticized for their unethical and selfish decision. Claire Headley, a former member who had been in the church since age four and a member of Sea Org since 16, says she had two abortions while working within the organization, both of which she regrets. Headley, now 31, has filed a federal lawsuit against the church. She will go to court in January.

Back in the 80s and 90s, members were allowed to have children, though they were not so much welcomed as tolerated. But in 1996 the official stance changed. The new policy did not say anything about abortions - just that any members wishing to start a family should be immediately expelled from the program. Children were forbidden within the organization. The only minors they allowed were the ones they recruited, who were encouraged to sign their billion-year contract at ages as young as 12.

In order to enforce the no-child policy, Sea Org staffers would bring in the "ethics officer," who would try to convince the pregnant woman that abortion was not only the best option - it was the only option. Members report being cut off from family members and pressured into the procedure by church higher-ups. However, most also state that though they felt "forced," they were never directly ordered to terminate the pregnancy. Instead, they would rely on intimidation tactics, including forcing pregnant women to do strenuous manual labor and subjecting them to repeated interrogations with the "ethics officer," to bring the pregnant dissenter around to their way of thinking. One former member recalled:

"Nobody would ever tell you, 'You have to do it.' You get backed into a corner. . . . You're sitting in front of an ethics officer, you're sitting in front of (church) executives that are basically telling you you're a piece of s—- if you don't do this. You're bad. You let the group down. You're out ethics, you did it deliberately. Look at what a bad thing you did to the planet.''

Sunshine "Sunny" Pereira signed a billion-year contract with Sea Org at 15. Raised in the church, Pereira felt that Sea Org was the natural progression of her education. "I was like 'That's where my mom is, so I guess I'm going there, too,'" she said. Part of Pereira's job with Sea Org involved sitting in on the council in L.A., where she learned about their policy on how to "handle" (i.e. coerce) pregnant women. She tells the Times:

"I can't say straight out, 'Well, they force you to have an abortion... But they do everything they can to keep a person in the Sea Org. And if that requires termination of the pregnancy, they will support the person in that decision. And they will also help the person make that decision.''

Pereira also recalls shunning members of the organization who became pregnant while at Sea Org. Another former member said in a court document filed on May 28th that there was an "internal policy of coercing and forcing" women to have abortions in order to "maximize the workload from female employees and avoid child care issues." Children were viewed as a liability, something that would distract members from their religious purpose.

Tommy Davis, the spokesman for the church, says though Scientologists have no official stance on abortion, the church never promoted a policy that would pressure members to make a decision one way or the other. "The decision to have a child or terminate a pregnancy is a personal decision made by a couple,'' he said. "If any current or former Sea Org member ever 'pressured' someone to have an abortion, they did so independently and that action was not approved, endorsed or advocated by the church.'' He claims members who become pregnant are asked to leave Sea Org, but they are provided with assistance from the church, including prenatal care, medical care, and help finding housing and employment. Davis says the woman who have come forward made personal choices that "they now clearly regret."

The St. Petersburg Times has compiled several videos of former members speaking about their experiences with the church. Individual clips are available at TampaBay.com.

No Kids Allowed [St. Petersburg Times]