When I heard that Abby Johnson was coming to New Hampshire to talk about her work, I made up my mind I was going to see her no matter what. My family’s calendar promptly sprouted four other events for the same day. But still … Abby Johnson. Ever since I read her book Unplanned and learned about her ministry to women who like her once worked in the abortion industry, I’ve wanted to meet her in person.
You haven’t read Unplanned? Bookmark this post and come back to it later. (Please.) You have to read Abby’s book first. I consider it a basic book. In brief: she spent eight years working for Planned Parenthood, even winning an award for her management of a PP facility in Texas. One “aha” moment followed another until, quite to her surprise, she turned her back on the abortion industry and went pro-life. She now has a husband and three kids and a fourth child on the way; she has one book behind her and I’m sure others ahead of her; she’s a social-media powerhouse; and while based in Texas, she travels for a speaking schedule that would leave me gasping for air.
(Did I get her autograph? No. I keep forgetting that getting a book on Kindle means the author can’t inscribe the book. Not the first time my fondness for e-books has backfired.)
An unhurried visit
So what does this force of nature look like in real life? Arriving at her event, I walked towards a small auditorium on the Dartmouth campus in Hanover and passed a young woman with a robust laugh, a big smile, and baby in her arms. I did a double take, and sure enough, that was the face on all the publicity flyers. No backstage prep for Abby Johnson. There she was, casually and comfortably dressed, greeting people as if this were her regular neighborhood.
I expected protesters outside the event. There were none.
Once the program began and Abby took the mic, she spoke for an hour to the 70 people who came to hear her. No props, no graphics, no special effects. Then she stayed for another hour and a half to answer questions. That’s amazing to me, steeped as I am in a political culture where the stars all have entourages and tight schedules.
Priorities and standing appointments
Her manner is friendly and warm – and no less blunt for all that. Speaking to a room full of people supportive of her work, she wanted to know something: do we spend time on the front lines, outside abortion facilities (while I hate using the word “clinic” in that context, Abby uses it freely), listening to the workers and the women going in? And if we don’t, what are we waiting for?
I squirmed at that. I would rather face a legislative committee any day. On a whim, I told people a few days ago that I’d spend an hour with the current 40 Days for Life campaign for every new Facebook “like” on my page. Three people promptly hit the “like” button. Now I’m scheduled for shifts in Manchester and Concord next week, and I’m nearly petrified at the prospect. But that’s where the action is, according to Abby.
She has no patience for claims of I-don’t-have-time. “It’s weird about how we prioritize. I know someone who always has a reason for not signing up [to stand outside abortion clinics]. She’s always busy. But she has a standing appointment every six weeks for four hours with her hair stylist.” Abby says there’s a “strange disconnect” between the horror of abortion and our reluctance to stand up publicly against it. “If they were killing two-year-olds in those clinics, we’d all see the need to be there” defending life. She acknowledges that standing outside the clinics “is not fun, but we need to be that public witness,” overcoming our own “apathy, complacency, busy-ness.”
She recalled that Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL who later became pro-life, once said that abortion promoters in the 1960s knew they could make huge strides if churches stayed silent or inactive on the right to life. Today, she says, “That’s on us as a Christian community. Abortions clinics might as well have a sign up that says ‘we’re open by permission of the Christian community.’ We hear more from the pulpit about tithing than we do about abortion.”
Her ministry to abortion workers who want to leave the industry has been busy since the day she set it up. “Our biggest group that we utilize [to reach abortion facility workers] is 40 Days for Life.” Abby Johnson’s clinic, back when she was a PP worker, was one of the first places that 40 Days for Life ever covered – and the participants didn’t stick to forty days. They kept coming back, and they slowly built a relationship with Abby, even though she says that sometimes “I thought of turning the sprinklers on them.” She says the pro-life witnesses outside her clinic never called her names, but worked on forming a “genuine relationship” with her, “without persecution and without condemnation. That’s what heals hearts.”
She’s evidently not a fan of showing abortion-minded women graphic photos of aborted babies; that’s not a move likely to build relationships or change hearts. She does, however, like to carry a small fetal model when she’s outside abortion clinics. “Look at the needs of women seeking abortion. Be a problem-solver. No one going in for an abortion is doing so because she’s pro-choice. She feels like she doesn’t have a choice. Focus on her needs; be prepared with information. Once she decides she’s not alone, the connection with her baby follows. Once that connection’s made, she’s not turning back.” And that’s when a little model of a preborn child will resonate.
Her suggestion for a good sign to carry outside an abortion clinic: “Ask to see your sonogram.” She attested that a sonogram image is an effective pro-life influence not only on women, but on men as well. “Being pro-life is not about saving a baby; it’s about building a family.” And in abortion practice, she said, sonograms are usually used only to determine gestational age. It’s time for women to ask to see that image before any “procedure” is done.
It’s not as though a woman seeking abortion doesn’t already know she’s carrying a baby. “We never had a woman come in [to PP] and talk about her ‘fetus.’ Whenever a woman asked if her baby would feel pain from the abortion, we told her the fetus has no sensory development until 28 weeks, even though we knew it was a lie. You have to believe that lie [if you work in an abortion facility] because the truth is far too inconvenient.”
Her work at PP
Which raises a question: how could she work at Planned Parenthood so long? “I loved the job. I believed I was doing a merciful thing. I believed that we were there to reduce the number of abortions,” by dispensing contraceptives. But PP is a business. “We were salespersons. We had numbers we needed to meet. I was good at that, and I was named Employee of the Year in 2008 because of that.” She said there was a “talking point” that PP employees were trained to use with abortion-minded women: “Abortion was the most selfless thing a woman could do for herself, her baby, and her future family.” Then came a budget meeting with increased quotas for the following year – including a doubled quota for abortions. In an agency that supposedly wanted to reduce abortions? Why have a quota for abortions at all? When she asked those questions, the answer she got was “But Abby, how do you think we make our money?”
A-ha moment. “I began to ask a lot of questions. I began to ask myself what we were doing.” All the while, those pro-life witnesses outside her clinic were there, praying for her as well as for all the other workers and patients. One day, it all clicked.
When she left PP, her former employer took her to court (and eventually lost its case). Her former co-workers testified against her and then turned their backs on her. Who stood by her? Her husband – and all those persistent, peaceful pro-life witnesses who had been outside her clinic for years. Years.
How are we to take it from here?
Abby recently added an FAQ section to her Facebook page, where she suggests ways to get involved in prolife work. Her book Unplanned is a good resource (available from Amazon, though I hope you’ll give your local bookseller a try). Her ministry to abortion industry workers could use help and support (And Then There Were None). These were her closing words at Dartmouth:
“If you have a really active prayer life, that prayer life will move you to action. Find your place in this movement. If we ask and we’re quiet and we listen, God will answer.”
Let’s hear it for the hosts:
Abby came to Dartmouth at the invitation of Aquinas House, the Catholic Student Center at Dartmouth, and its Walker Percy Pro-Life Initiative. (Walker Percy: now there’s an author to drop everything for.) Co-host: St. Denis Parish. My thanks to anyone and everyone who helped make this event possible.