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The identity, politics and future of the pro-life movement

An interview with Abby Johnson

Abortion makes people tense. There are battle lines and court battles; semantics and causalities; politics, history and personal history.

All of it is familiar ground for Abby Johnson.

Johnson began at Planned Parenthood (PP) as a volunteer and worked her way up to Clinic Director. She was there eight years, until witnessing a 13-week old fetus trying to escape the vacuum tube during an abortion procedure. Shocked at the incontrovertible evidence of life, she resigned, later founding an organization called And Then There Were None to help other PP staff quit the abortion business. Johnson has had two abortions.

In the six years since, Johnson has become a well-known pro-life advocate, speaking around the world. She has worked with 40 Days for Life and Live Action and is currently Senior Policy Advisor for Americans United for Life. She is married and has five children. Johnson was raised Southern Baptist and now worships in a Roman Catholic Church.

Christian Courier spoke with Johnson from her home in Texas.

CC: What misconceptions on both sides would you love to clear up?

Johnson: One of the biggest misconceptions that pro-lifers have of pro-choicers is that pro-choicers don’t like children. “How can you work in an abortion clinic if you hate babies?” But the majority of the people who work in the abortion industry have children and love children. They’re just very misguided as to what they think being a good parent is. 

I remember the people outside, the pro-lifers, at PP who would say, “How can you be pregnant and working here?” And I would say “I’ve been pregnant three times, and two times I chose to abort, and this time I chose to parent because now I’m ready to be a parent.” That was my own disconnect that I had to carry. I wish that pro-lifers would understand that it doesn’t mean they hate children; they have a very different idea of what it means to care for children and be a compassionate parent. They believe it’s not compassionate to bring a child into a home that may be ill-equipped to provide for that child.

The thing I wish pro-choicers knew about pro-lifers is that we are not all crazy religious people who want to control women’s bodies. There are a large number of pro-lifers who are secular in nature – atheist, agnostic or of another faith. I know many Muslims who are pro-life. PLAGAL (the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians), secular prolife groups – we’re not all the same. The prolife movement is made up of hundreds of post-abortive women and men; we haven’t had perfect lifestyles; we’re not uneducated; we believe science and reason. All of those back up our beliefs.

Could it be a detriment to the pro-life movement that others identify it as mainly Christian? Would it be helpful to shed that identity?

I’m a strong Catholic; I wear my faith proudly. But when I’m talking to someone who is an abortion supporter, I never talk about faith; I come at it from a strictly medical perspective, looking at raw data, facts. A lot of people aren’t able to articulate that. If I said, “Let’s pretend you’re not a Christian and you’re still pro-life, what would you say to defend a pro-life view?” Could you answer that? That’s our job. I think we need to be pro-life for more than religious reasons. I don’t say we need to shed our identity as religious, because that aspect brings a lot of healing and hope to people who have been involved in abortion, but we do need to talk more about and to the different groups of people who are in the movement.

Embracing that diversity is very important. For many years PLAGAL wasn’t allowed a presence at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. and I think that is disgraceful. As pro-lifers who didn’t fit the stereotype, they weren’t allowed to participate. But there isn’t a model for the perfect pro-lifer: it should just be about defending the unborn and protecting moms and families.

Women today are sharing their abortion stories more publically than they used to. Many mention the “spirit” of the life that was lost. Have you heard women expressing themselves in this way?

I have. I remember a woman that I worked with who was Jewish, an abortion counselor, and it came up about what she believed about abortion. She believed and tells the women she counsels that the soul of the being inside of her will be transferred into another woman if she’s not able to parent this child. Women who have had abortions are so desperate to hold onto some kind of justification for why their abortion was OK, they’re willing to grab onto anything, even if it doesn’t really make sense. Even statements that – if they hadn’t had an abortion and heard that – they’d say “that’s crazy.” They are vulnerable and so desperate. We did hear that inside the [PP] clinic. For a lot of women the idea that they’re not killing a child but that the soul will move on to another person makes abortion easier to live with.

Do the 3D ultrasounds that some pro-life pregnancy resource centres provide make a real difference? Or does technology have its limits?

Ultrasounds are great. For a woman who is really waffling in her decision or a woman who has never had children, ultrasounds are very powerful. But for women who are going to have an abortion, who have already decided, an ultrasound is not very likely going to change their minds. Some pro-life centers advertise that 80 percent of women who have seen ultrasounds choose to not have an abortion – there’s not a lot of follow up there. Those women go home, to their regular situation where their boyfriend is abusive, their mom will kick them out, their friends are saying it’s not a good idea – and they later will get an abortion. [Centres advertise a] 90 percent “save rate,” but when you follow up with the women it’s more like 50 to 60. We need to do a better job of saying, OK, you’ve chosen life today, but tomorrow the burden is back on them and they’re feeling scared and alone, and they go into a clinic. We have to do a better job of walking with these women on that journey – not just a one-time ultrasound but in a few months from now, when they’re struggling. Or are we just marking the tally sheet to say, “There’s another one saved”?

Does Planned Parenthood have a policy on gender-selective abortion?

They have said before they don’t support gender-selective abortion; however, they will not turn a woman away who says she’s there to abort because of the baby’s gender. To my knowledge, there’s never been an incident where PP has said, “We’re not going to do that abortion.” I don’t think it’s necessarily a huge problem, although it is a problem, and we’ll see more and more people coming in and requesting those procedures, the more immigration we see coming into the country.

Do you think things are getting better or worse for the pro-life movement in North America?

Depends on where you’re looking. Where I live, in Texas, we’re seeing a wonderful improvement on the sanctity of human life: there were 45 abortions clinics across the state and now we’re down to 16. That’s not in every state – we [also] see abortion clinics opening, younger doctors beginning their practices, so certainly it seems to be regional, depending on what state you live in.

Clearly, there are many other countries where it’s getting worse – particularly in Canada, where you’ve got virtually no laws on the books regulating abortion, which is similar to some States, like Vermont. You don’t even have to be a doctor to do an abortion in Vermont. And California now allows nurse practitioners to perform abortions. Certainly there are places across the country where you think, is there anything that’s going to work, that will reduce the abortion rate? But I think that in the places where we are successful, it’s starting to trickle out. More and more people are being bold in speaking up; more women speaking up about their regrets related to having abortions – as long as that is continuing to happen, then we’re making progress in the right direction.

What advice would you give Canadian pro-life activists? 

You have to be incremental in your approach. Slavery was not abolished in a 24 hour period; it took many years, and still we see slavery in many different areas, like sex trafficking. It’s not going to happen overnight. Start with a ban [on] abortion after 24 weeks. Go province by province and start banning abortion, if the federal government won’t do a ban. Or start regulating a little bit more inside of the clinics.

I recently called a clinic in Canada to get some information for sidewalk counselors there, and the person I talked to was so flippant about my questions, as though I was going in to get my teeth cleaned. No talk about, “Are you nervous?” It was just like “This is no big deal; our government makes it very easy to have an abortion; it’s an everyday sort of thing.”

A lot of people think you shouldn’t regulate abortion, just ban it outright, but that’s not gonna happen. If you can save 20 babies, that’s 20 babies. Fifteen thousand lives were saved in Texas by implementing new laws that made it more difficult to run those clinics. A baby saved is a baby saved, and that’s what we’re in this for.

Your biography, Unplanned, is being made into a movie. How is that going?

We’re hoping for a release this time next year. The screenplay is being written now, by the producers of God’s Not Dead. It’s exciting, because I’ve never done anything like this – I’m going to help with casting. It’s early yet, we’re still getting things put together. I’m hoping that this really has an impact on those who see it.
 

 

Find and support a local pregnancy resource centre

Care Net pregnancy resource centres provide compassion, hope, and help to anyone considering abortion by presenting them with realistic alternatives and Christ-centered support through their life-affirming network of pregnancy centres, organizations and individuals across Canada and the U.S.
In the U.S, many centres are now providing limited medical services such as obstetrical ultrasound to confirm pregnancy and STD testing and treatment. For those who experience grief or regret related to a past abortion, abortion recovery programs are available at most centres.
Care Net serves a network of more than 1,160 pregnancy centres across North America. care-net.org/find-a-pregnancy-center Heartbeat International currently serves 1,800 affiliated pregnancy help locations, maternity homes and non-profit adoption agencies on all six continents. Enter your postal code here and follow this link to find a centre near you: heartbeatservices.org/worldwide-directory.  
 Katrina Campbell is Center Director of Beaver-Valley Choices Pregnancy Services (near Pittsburgh, Pa.). Choices Pregnancy Services is a member of Care Net.

Author

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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