The Walls Are Talking, by Abby Johnson and Kristin Detrow (Ignatius Press, 2016, 155pp., $17.95)
Abby Johnson gives fair warning in the preface to her new book: “This will not be an enjoyable read. It is a necessary one, however…” She’s right on both counts. The Walls Are Talking gives former abortion workers a voice, and what they have to say is unsettling. “Settled” is not how Johnson wants to leave anyone.
The title was inspired by an old HBO movie called “If These Walls Could Talk,” a paean to abortion providers. Now, twenty years on, Abby Johnson turns that title on its head.
Pro-life readers may pick up the book because of its author’s reputation. Supporters of abortion rights might avoid the book for the same reason. The Walls are Talking is not primarily about Abby Johnson, though, and the experiences recounted in the book are powerful on their own terms. Any current abortion worker expecting ridicule or condemnation in the pages of these book will be surprised. So will any pro-lifer who picks up the book in search of a reassuring pat on the head.
When Johnson told the story of her unlikely departure from Planned Parenthood in 2011’s Unplanned, she ended on an upbeat note, after recounting the personal and professional challenges that faced her as she chose to leave abortion work.
“Upbeat” gives way to uncertainty in The Walls Are Talking. The willingness of former abortion workers to walk out on jobs with benefits and security is a testament to courage and conviction. Few of the workers who tell their stories in this book expected soft landings after leaving their clinics, yet leave they did.
As one story succeeds another, the book’s major weakness becomes clearer: the anonymity of the people who agreed to be interviewed. Abby Johnson and her credited co-author Kristin Detrow note in the preface their desire to protect their subjects’ privacy. There is probably no one in the country who knows better than Johnson what kind of fallout comes from leaving the abortion industry. She herself faced legal action, among other things, when she left Planned Parenthood. Even so, if the day ever comes when one of the people interviewed for this book makes her name public, her story will become even more powerful.
It’s fair to note Johnson’s response to such a criticism. This comes from the web site of And Then There Were None, the nonprofit she founded to assist abortion workers seeking exit from the industry: “Our goal is not to create new pro-life speakers. The primary goal of ATTWN is to draw clinic workers out of the abortion industry and set them on a path to recovery. Once a clinic worker has come to terms with what he or she has witnessed and participated in during the time working in the clinic (this can take months, years, or even decades), then they can make a rational, conscious decision whether to come forward and go public with their testimony…”
The Walls Are Talking is about people whose abortion work was motivated by sincere commitment to women’s health. We meet one such worker whose awakening began when a client suffered a ruptured ectopic pregnancy shortly after being sent home from the clinic. Positive pregnancy test but no pregnancy showing up on ultrasound: “We honestly didn’t have a protocol for that type of scenario.” After the client’s mother called the clinic the next day to report that her daughter had needed emergency surgery, the clinic offered the mother $680 on the condition that she sign a non-disclosure agreement. The worker was stunned, doubly so when the mother accepted the settlement. Women’s health – one particular woman’s health – took a hit that day.
Another person interviewed for the book remembers one abortion client, a girl who spoke no English and who was accompanied by an older American man who filled out the necessary paperwork. The young woman signed her name where the man pointed on the forms. While some of the clinic workers spoke among themselves about calling the authorities to report what was obviously a troublesome situation, they eventually decided on silence. “I pray that my story can serve as a cautionary tale, as a warning to the fence-sitters who claim not to have an opinion about abortion one way or the other….[I went] from someone who personally found abortion distasteful but necessary, to someone who chose abortion for herself, to someone who facilitated abortions. Evil prefers small victories.”
Pro-lifers are spared little in The Walls Are Talking, getting a cringeworthy glimpse of what they might look like to abortion workers. Harsh language comes in for particular criticism. Johnson, who entered the Catholic Church after leaving Planned Parenthood, says “I have heard so much vitriol spewed from the mouths of ‘Christian pro-lifers’ since becoming pro-life….I am always terrified that clinic workers will see some of the words from pro-lifers. I have been told by several former workers that they will never come forward with their stories, because they are so scared of how they will be treated by us – by us, the supposed ‘Christian’ movement.”
Even more painful (possibly because it hits the bull-eye) is one ex-abortion-worker’s assertion that her former colleagues far exceed pro-lifers in level of commitment. “[T]hey [abortion advocates] are willing to risk their lives and their reputations for what they consider to be the civil right of abortion on demand. Sadly enough, they want it more. They are willing to risk more….The fact is that the people who are committed to the abortion movement are willing to sacrifice their time, talents, and treasure in a way that I have not seen elsewhere.”
It’s doubtful that an unknown author would have been able to find a publisher for this book, in spite of its unique content and viewpoint. Johnson is banking heavily on her reputation with The Walls Are Talking. She runs the risk of being accused of making it all up. Her major pro-life project since the publication of Unplanned is the best defense against such an accusation: And Then There Were None, and the hundreds of former abortion workers ATTWN has served. In The Walls Are Talking, Abby Johnson is sticking her neck out not for herself but for them.