Abby Johnson worked at Planned Parenthood. Now she is a leader of the pro-life movement.
Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director who left her job after assisting in the abortion of a 13-week-old fetus, serves as CEO of the pro-life ministry “And Then There Were None.” In 2012 she left the Episcopalian faith to become a Catholic because her public pro-life stance was welcomed there. She has since worked as a pro-life activist and author.
Ms. Johnson is the subject of the upcoming movie “Unplanned,” which is based on her memoir of the same name. It chronicles her rise at Planned Parenthood from volunteer to clinic director as well as her own two abortions. The film is slated to open in theaters on March 22, 2019. On Dec. 11, I interviewed Ms. Johnson by telephone about her story and work. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
The annual March for Life occurs in Washington, D.C., close to the January 22 anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. What realistic chance is there at this point of overturning that law?
I think it’s pretty realistic. With the justices we currently have, we will need to bring the right case to challenge the constitutionality of abortion. We can’t just bring a case that happens to be pro-life; we really have to select the right case. If we do that, the chances are very high.
Everyone who says they’re Christian, needs to be directly involved in the pro-life movement in some way.
St. Teresa of Calcutta used to say that if people didn’t want their babies, she would take them. Short of overturning Roe v. Wade, what are some realistic things we can personally do right now to protect life in the womb?
Everyone who says they’re pro-life, everyone who says they’re Christian, needs to be directly involved in the pro-life movement in some way. So volunteer with your local pregnancy resource center, get involved with various national organizations—I mean, laws are important, but our goal should not be to make abortion illegal. Our goal should be to make abortion unthinkable. To do that, we have to be people willing to be part of the solution.
The upcoming film “Unplanned” details your career in Planned Parenthood and later decision to quit. What motivated you to volunteer and later serve as director of a Planned Parenthood clinic?
I got involved in college not really knowing anything about Planned Parenthood. I grew up in a home that was pro-life, against abortion, but we didn’t talk about what that meant and I didn’t know anything about Planned Parenthood. I initially got involved as a student believing their goal was to help women at a difficult time in their life. I think that’s why the majority of people get involved in Planned Parenthood work. It’s not because they have a desire to kill babies, it’s because they are there to help women.
I realized there weren’t very many differences between me and this child in the womb.
What made you so good at your job as a Planned Parenthood director?
I was very well versed in Planned Parenthood’s talking points because I really believed them to be true. I was pretty convincing in that way. I became a very good salesperson for the organization, selling their highest revenue-generating product, and that was abortion. I had a lot of drive and ambition, a desire to do good.
You quit your job at Planned Parenthood after assisting at the abortion of a 13-week old fetus. What about that experience changed your mind?
Seeing a child that young fight and struggle against the abortion instrument led me to re-evaluate what I believed and had been told was true. I realized there weren’t very many differences between me and this child in the womb. We both had the basic fight-or-flight human response. We were in different locations and we were different sizes, but our humanity was the same. That’s what caused me to ask: “What are we doing here?” We might think we are helping women, but we are doing it at the expense of innocent human life.
After leaving your job, you also left mainline Protestantism and converted to Catholicism. What attracted you to the Catholic faith?
I grew up in South Louisiana, where a majority of people and most of my friends were Roman Catholic, so I always had a lot of curiosity about the Catholic faith. When I left Planned Parenthood, I left all my friends behind and developed new friends who were pro-life. They all happened to Catholic and they kept inviting me and my husband to mass. We thought we would hate it but went just to sort of shut them up, and it just felt right. It felt like it was home, and we weren’t sure why at the time, but we found ourselves in RCIA and really fell in love with the church. The more we read, the more we realized the truth and fullness of Christ was within the Catholic Church, and that’s where we wanted to be.
Who are your role models in the faith, either living or dead?
Fulton Sheen is a model to me. I read a lot of his writings and have read a lot about him. Also, of course, St. Teresa of Calcutta. She was such a model of compassion and mercy but also of justice. I think she’s a good representation of what it truly means to be pro-life.
How do you pray?
We pray a family rosary every day. We try to attend adoration once a month, but it’s difficult because we have so many children and they’re not huge fans. My husband and I also pray together; we feel it’s an important part of who were are as a family and our identity as Catholics.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
My favorite passage is Psalm 30, a passage about deliverance. For me, it’s a powerful example of what Christ has done in my own life. When I felt like there was no hope for me, he was there waiting for me, waiting to bring me joy.
You had two abortions. What do you say to people who believe women only oppose abortion out of cultural and religious shame?
More people are embracing the pro-life movement because of the secular and scientific arguments that can be made. As Christians, we root everything in God, but more and more people are listening to the stories of women who have been hurt by abortion. It’s very hard to argue with personal experience. The case to be pro-life from a scientific perspective is also very strong and it’s important to talk about it from a non-religious standpoint to connect with people where they are. Abortion is not simply a religious issue.
Our ministry alone has helped more than 500 abortion workers leave the industry.
So what reason would someone of no faith have to be pro-life?
There’s a continuum of life, and science says life begins when cells reproduce and grow, which begins at conception and ends at death. Any unnatural interruption of that lifespan is killing. Probably the most unscientific argument you can make is that it’s not a human being. It’s getting harder for pro-choicers to argue that because science has come so far. So they’re using more emotional arguments like women’s rights instead of focusing on the child in the womb.
In his weekly general audience this past October 10, Pope Francis compared abortion to hiring a hit man to “fix a problem.” If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about abortion in the United States, what would it be?
His comments are hard to hear, and they sort of take you aback, but his analogy is right-on. He’s a pope of the world, not of the United States, but I like the fact that he does speak about abortion and I would just encourage him to continue. Our problems in the United States are not isolated; most first-world countries have a rate of about one in three women having abortions. So we need the Holy Father to take a bold stand about abortion and do it often.
What do you hope people will take away from your life?
I hope they see that redemption is possible for anyone, no matter how far they have strayed from the path God created for them. I always want people to see conversion is possible for anyone and that it’s happening. Stories like mine are not few and far between. Our ministry alone has helped more than 500 abortion workers leave the industry. It’s important that we recognize the humanity and dignity of people who disagree with us, people working in the abortion industry, and that our words and how we treat them matter.
What are your hopes for the future?
We want our ministry to grow, abortion clinics to close, abortion clinic workers to know Christ, and women to choose life because of the stories they’re hearing from these former abortion workers and from their real-life experiences. We have seven former abortion doctors now working full-time in our ministry.