Former Scientologists accuse the Church of forced abortions

Laura Dieckman was just 12 when her parents let her leave home to work full time for Scientology's cult-like order, the Sea Organisation. At 16, she married a co-worker. At 17, she was pregnant.

She was excited to start a family, but she said Sea Org supervisors pressured her to have an abortion. She was back at work the following day.

Claire Headley joined at 16, married at 17 and was pregnant at 19. She said Sea Org supervisors threatened strenuous physical work and repeated interrogations if she didn't end her pregnancy. She, too, was back at work the next day.

Two years later she had a second abortion, this time while working for the church in Clearwater.

A St. Petersburg Times special investigation found their experiences were not unique. More than a dozen women said the culture in the Sea Org pushed them or women they knew to have abortions, in many cases, abortions they did not want.

Some said colleagues and supervisors pressured them to abort their pregnancies and remain productive workers without the distraction of raising children. Terminating a pregnancy and staying on the job affirmed one's commitment to the all-important work of saving the planet.

"You just have a way of thinking,'' said Sunny Pereira, who was 15 when she entered the order. ''It all has to do with the Sea Org and what we're trying to accomplish. Everything that is a distraction is scorned.''

According to those speaking out, women who didn't schedule abortions were shunned by fellow Sea Org members, called "degraded beings'' and taunted for being "out ethics,'' straying from the order's ethical code.

Some were isolated, assigned manual labor and interrogated until they agreed to abortions, said church defectors, including men whose wives got abortions.

The church denied all their accounts.

"There is no church policy to convince anyone to have an abortion, and the church has never engaged in such activity,'' said church spokesman Tommy Davis.

Sea Org members marry one another and take no vows of celibacy, as do members of other religious orders. And unlike many religions, Scientology takes no position for or against abortion.

"The decision to have a child or terminate a pregnancy is a personal decision made by a couple,'' Davis said. "That applies to all Scientologists.

"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.''

But in sworn depositions obtained by the Times, Headley and Dieckman recount, conversation by conversation, how Sea Org members influenced them to end their pregnancies.

The depositions were taken in a federal lawsuit Headley filed against the church. She claims her abortions were forced and the church's restrictive working conditions constituted human trafficking. She has a January trial date. She has submitted to church lawyers a list of 36 current and former staffers she said had abortions while working for the Sea Org.

*Read the full account of the St. Petersburg Times report.