AMARILLO, Texas — On March 15, Planned Parenthood of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle announced the decision to close five of its centers.

In an Amarillo Globe-News article, Planned Parenthood's Amarillo chief, Claudia Stravato, cited dramatically rising costs and fixed federal funding as reasons for the decision.

But some observers attribute the latest closings — and five other Planned Parenthood closings since 1997 — to the leadership of Amarillo's Bishop John W. Yanta, who, they say, has “given birth to the pro-life community on the diocesan level.”

Bishop Yanta, 69, who grew up on a farm in South Texas, says he was always pro-life, but not passionately so until 10 years ago: “I always did and said the right things as a priest, but I was not visibly involved until 1991.”

That year, a Protestant man invited him to take part in a Jericho Walk, an ecumenical effort in San Antonio, where then-Father Yanta served as pastor of a 3,000-family Mexican-American parish.

Father Yanta began joining the group as they walked from abortion clinic to abortion clinic on Saturday mornings, singing, praying and carrying pro-life signs. The same friend later introduced him to Operation Rescue, which Father Yanta first joined as a prayer supporter.

“After the fourth rescue, I said, ‘Well, it's time to do it.’ So at Mass on New Year's Day 1993, I shocked the people by saying, 'My New Year's resolution is to go to jail.’ That got everybody's attention! I said, 'Sometime this year I'm going to go to jail for the unborn babies.’”

As good as his word, Father Yanta blocked the doors to a San Antonio abortion clinic and was arrested along with 24 other rescuers Jan. 23. Released from the county jail that evening, Father Yanta was later sentenced to six months probation and soon received time off for “good conduct.”

Though some of his relatives told him he'd “blown his chances” of becoming bishop by rescuing, two years later Father Yanta was named auxiliary bishop of San Antonio. With the “Precious Feet” symbol on his crest giving silent testimony to his pro-life commitment, Bishop Yanta continued his vocal, visible pro-life leadership for two years in San Antonio before moving to Amarillo, Texas.

Only two weeks after his installation in the Dioceses of Amarillo in March 1997, Bishop Yanta joined pro-life picketers outside a Planned Parenthood fundraiser featuring abortionist Dr. Henry Foster. Next, he called a diocese-wide meeting to discuss pro-life outreaches with 150 attendees. First on his agenda: “What can we do about the 18 Planned Parenthood centers located within this diocese?”

As a result of that meeting, Bishop Yanta created a diocesan Respect Life Ministries Office, which now provides services ranging from handmade receiving blankets for women in crisis pregnancies to Natural Family Planning training to healing after abortion.

Bishop Yanta, however, ascribes the “wonderful success” of his diocese's pro-life efforts and the closing of the 10 Planned Parenthood clinics primarily to prayer. “I encourage our people to pray the rosary at least once a week at the Planned Parenthood centers,” he says.

“I go as I can to support them and to encourage them,” he adds, “because prayer is the greatest power on earth.”

But Rita Diller, director of Respect Life Ministries, says, “Everything Respect Life Ministries has been able to accomplish, we've accomplished because of Bishop Yanta's support. He's a fabulous advocate for women and children, and he never slows down, never stops. He's such a pro-life hero.”

Not surprisingly, Stravato of Planned Parenthood describes Bishop Yanta in different terms, calling him an “extremist” who has an “obsession” with Planned Parenthood. She also insists their 10 clinic closings have “nothing whatsoever to do with him” and that many other Planned Parenthood clinics have merged or closed across the country due to lack of funding.

Diller, however, says Planned Parenthood has had a foothold in the Texas Panhandle for 34 years and to her knowledge had never shut down a clinic until four years ago.

“Between 1994 and 1999 Planned Parenthood shut down only 9% of its clinics nationwide, and from 1999-2000 it showed an increase in clinics,” she explains. “Here it has shut down 56% of its clinics since 1997. That's not a trend going on nationwide, at least not in the proportions we're seeing here.”

Stravato describes Bishop Yanta's and Respect Life Ministries’ protests as “ludicrous” because, she says, the local Planned Parenthood clinics do not provide abortions: “Abortion isn't our goal; preventing abortion is our goal. Bishop Yanta should be joining with us, not demonizing us.”

Yet Amarillo's Planned Parenthood literature says they “fully support accessibility to legal and safe abortions” and that they offer “birth control services” and “emergency contraception.”

According to Bishop Yanta, Planned Parenthood has a “rather respected image” and many Catholics don't realize it's “the biggest promoter and provider of abortions in the U.S. and in the world.” In October 1998, Bishop Yanta wrote a letter to Catholics in his diocese spelling out the Church's teaching on the Gospel of Life and urging them not to cooperate with Planned Parenthood in any way:

“As your bishop and shepherd, I ask all Catholics not to use their services, not to belong to any of their boards, not to serve as a volunteer, and not to be employed there.”

Bishop Yanta also offered to help find a job for anyone who quit working for Planned Parenthood, an important offer since Stravato says Planned Parenthood of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle has many Catholics on its board and that “the majority of our employees are Catholics.”

Diller says many people have left their jobs with Planned Parenthood since pro-lifers began praying outside the clinics.

A clinic director walked out one day while they were praying and said she'd never return. A Catholic clinic employee felt so convicted seeing the large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe carried by the pro-life witnesses that she went to work at another clinic — only to discover the same prayerful, pro-life presence there as well. She left her job a few weeks later.

Says Diller: “These are very obvious instances of people leaving because their consciences started bothering them once someone started praying and questioning publicly the morality of Planned Parenthood.”

Lisa Ferguson writes from Steubenville, Ohio.