Q&A: Former abortion clinic director’s story comes to film

“She does a great job … of explaining her motivation for wanting to work for Planned Parenthood as misguided good intentions, and her reasons for leaving and starting her pro-life work as God-guided good intentions.”

“The story of her turning point was heart wrenching.  I found myself bawling like a baby several times during the three days it took me to read.”

“Some of the insider information about the reality of Planned Parenthood had me in tears. I could not believe that I had been so blind to what they really do inside these clinics.” 

These excerpts from online reviews of her book, “Unplanned,” break open the story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned pro-life activist.

Now her story also is the subject of PureFlix’s latest motion picture of the same name, coming to select theaters March 29. Like the book, the movie recounts Johnson’s emotional and spiritual journey after assisting in an ultrasound-guided abortion of a 13-week-old preborn baby. As the film’s tagline says, “What she saw changed everything.” 

After that experience, Johnson went from being Planned Parenthood’s 2008 Employee of the Year, having supported more than 22,000 abortions in her career, to one of the nation’s most outspoken pro-life advocates. She became determined to expose abortion for what it really is. 

Now she devotes her time to publicly sharing her story, teaching about pro-life issues and reaching out to employees still working in the abortion industry. She is the founder of And Then There Were None, a nonprofit organization that assists abortion clinic workers in leaving their jobs.  

Johnson will be the main speaker at the All in Christ for Pro-Life Banquet in Omaha Feb. 22.  The event will begin at 6 p.m. at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Event Center and is sponsored by Life Runners, an organization of pro-life running enthusiasts. Johnson was among the first 500 life runners when she joined the group in January 2013, said Pat Castle, Life Runners’ founder and president. She is coming to promote student chapters of the national organization that is now over 10,000 strong. 

Johnson spoke with the Catholic Voice about her new movie, her conversion to Catholicism in 2012, and pro-life efforts in America to promote a culture of life.

Q: Tell us about your new movie, “Unplanned.”

It’s a very raw and honest story about what happens inside of abortion clinics, what happens to women, and how easily people get manipulated, not only to working in the abortion industry, but also to have abortions. It also just shows the beauty of God’s forgiveness and his redemption and it’s really well done.

Q: And what do you hope people learn from watching this movie?

I hope that they walk away from it, first of all, with additional knowledge about abortion: what it is, how it affects the baby and how it affects mothers. I hope that they walk away with a greater understanding of the systemic abuses that are taking place inside of the abortion industry. But, most importantly, I hope that they walk away knowing that forgiveness is possible for anyone, that conversion is possible for anyone. Prayerfully we are hoping that many hearts are converted after watching the film.

Q: How has your impression of the pro-life movement changed over the years? Obviously you were on one side and now you’re on the other.

I obviously didn’t have a very favorable impression of the pro-life movement when I worked at Planned Parenthood. But now, even in the past nine years since I’ve been out of Planned Parenthood, I’ve seen, I think, a softening of the movement. I don’t mean softening in a bad way. I mean softening in a good way, sort of a realization that we need to really reach the hearts of these women, and to not simply make abortion illegal, but to really make it unthinkable. To provide solutions for women so that they never even think about having an abortion. And that’s really encouraging.

And even just in my own ministry, helping abortion workers leave the clinics … when we first got that started six years ago, a lot of people who were pro-life, they just didn’t get it. They’re like, “Why would we want to help someone who worked in the abortion industry?” But now we see such an overall acceptance of our ministry and just the love for the workers who are coming out of abortion clinics.

Q: How did you determine the need to start your organization, And Then There Were None? What strategies does it use to help abortion industry employees transition out of those jobs?

I started it because I started looking around at the different ministries that were out there in the pro-life movement, and there were so many ministries. Pregnancy resource centers and post-aborted ministries, parenting classes and all different types of things for women. There was nothing for those who worked in abortion clinics.

And I think the idea was, well, these people, they don’t really want to be helped. They are too far gone to be converted and so people just didn’t think about them. And that’s what I hear the most from pro-lifers is, they’ll say, “Thank you for really opening my eyes to the hearts of these clinic workers. I just never thought about them. I never thought about praying for them. I never thought about reaching out to them.” And so that’s why it was started. There was no national outreach to these workers. And so we have various campaigns that we do throughout the year. We have mailings that we send into clinics to let them know about the services we offer. We make phone calls. We train people on the sidewalks, people who are pro-lifers who are advocating on the sidewalks, how to best interact with abortion clinic workers. So, we’re really trying to be proactive in reaching them and not just waiting for them to come to us.

Q: What is the most common argument that you hear from the abortion rights movement and how do you counter it?

I think probably what I hear most is, “If we don’t have access to safe and legal abortion, women are going to go to dangerous places, use back alley abortion providers.”

And what I tell people is that what’s happening currently today inside of abortion clinics is not safe. Women are still dying from legal abortions, they’re still getting septic, they’re getting infections, they have a perforated uterus. There’s still a lot of complications that come with legal abortion because it’s not about keeping abortions safe anymore like they used to say it was. Now, it’s just about access to abortion and access at any cost, even if it’s dangerous for that woman. So, I think we have to get in our minds that what took place in these back alley abortion clinics is really no different than what’s happening today inside of storefront abortion facilities.

Also, we live in very different times, so, pre-Roe, before 1973, things were different. Resources weren’t available to women. Government help wasn’t available to women. There wasn’t a lot of church support. Women who were single moms were sort of shunned. Adoption was not what it is today. So it’s sort of like comparing apples to oranges because today, we have so many resources, so many outreach groups. We have governmental assistance programs for women and families. We have so many groups in the church, pregnancy resource centers. I mean, we just have ministries everywhere for women who choose life and women who are pregnant, and women who have children. And today, there’s not the stigma that comes with being a single mom. So it’s just a very different time.

And I think that because there are so many resources, there would be fewer women who would choose illegal abortion. And even if there were a few, we can’t make something legal that’s wrong just because a few people will choose to do it. We can’t make drinking and driving legal just because a few people do it, because it’s still wrong. And it’s the same concept with abortion.

Q: What are your thoughts on how to renew and rejuvenate a culture of life in our country in light of recent state initiatives to roll back restrictions on abortion such as the Reproductive Health Act in New York?

People have got to figure out how to get involved. There’s a whole lot of people that are willing to check a box and say that they are pro-life, but they’re not actually putting feet on the ground, they’re not putting their money where their mouth is. They’re not actually doing anything to be pro-life and, hopefully, these various state legislators and various states’ legislation will awaken the conscience of pro-life America that we have to do more than just say we’re pro-life. We have to do more than just post something on Facebook. We really have to be involved.

And there are so many ways that people can get involved. Pregnancy centers need help. Abortion clinics, there’s like 850 abortion clinics across the country. Every day that those places are open, Christians should be standing out there praying and trying to talk to women who are going in. There’s just a lot of avenues that we can take in the pro-life movement. So I really hope that this emboldens people to take those first steps and to do something.

Q: You converted to Catholicism in 2012. What led to that conversion? 

It’s sort of a long process. My family, we had started going to an Episcopal church when I worked at Planned Parenthood because they were very pro-choice and supportive of what I did and where I worked. And so when I left Planned Parenthood, we were told that we were no longer welcome in the Episcopal church because we were publicly pro-life. And so we were looking for another church home. Both my husband and I really loved the liturgy, and so we wanted to find a pro-life liturgical church. There’s not very many. So, we started going to some different churches and nothing really felt right. And all of our new friends who are pro-life also happened to be Catholic and they kept inviting us to Mass.

We both had some pretty anti-Catholic sentiments about the Catholic Church that we’d grown up with. And so we really weren’t interested, but they kept bugging us about it. So we said, “OK, we’ll go to Mass, we’ll tell them we hated it, and then they’ll stop bothering us about it.” So, we went to Mass, and we walked out and we were both sort of like, “Wow, that really felt right.” So, we didn’t know what it was, but we were like, “Something about that felt right.” And we wanted to learn more. And so we ended up getting into RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and the more we looked into the history of the church, the more we looked into catechism, the more we just realized that this is truth and this is where we wanted to be. And so both my husband and I came into the church together at Easter 2012.

Q: On your website you talk about a new kind of feminism. Can feminism be redefined in a way that both respects the lives of women and honors the dignity of the unborn? And if so, how do you see this happening so that both are respected?

The original, the first feminist, the first wave feminism was pro-life feminism. They rejected abortion, they celebrated motherhood, they celebrated childbirth because they recognized that the feminine construct meant that we are natural child-bearers and so they celebrated that. They celebrated what made us unique, what made us different. So even though we have equal dignity as men, we are very different than men, biologically, spiritually, emotionally. And so they celebrated that. … Second-wave feminism was all about really disparaging men in order to build up women and that’s really not what feminism was built upon. That’s not the construct that feminism was built upon. And so they really have misconstrued what feminism was meant to be.

I think it’s important that St. John Paul II talked about this new feminism and how we needed to come up with something new, this new form of feminism … He didn’t name it for us, but he talked about how it was really important and talked about the feminine genius of women. And so, I think it’s important for us to recognize that. And I’m not sure it really mattered that we strongly identify as feminists or pro-life feminists, but I do think that opening that dialogue and helping current-wave feminists understand that our biological truth as women speaks to a higher spiritual truth.

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