In 2009, Abby Johnson left her position as health-center director of Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas, where she had worked for eight years. Her book Unplanned tells her compelling story.
Last Easter, Johnson and her husband entered the Catholic Church. She spoke with Tim Drake about her conversion and her new apostolate for abortion workers who desire to leave the industry: And Then There Were None.
Last Easter, you and your husband both entered the Catholic Church. What was your denominational background?
I grew up Baptist, but became Episcopalian while I worked at Planned Parenthood.
What led you to consider the Catholic Church?
I grew up with praise-and-worship music, but when I became Episcopalian, I fell in love with the liturgy.
After I became pro-life … members of the vestry and the minister at the Episcopalian church asked me not to come back.
My husband and I wondered: "What are we going to do now?" We needed to find a church.
We tried a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We wanted to find a church that continued to practice liturgy.
A Catholic church in our area had services at the time we liked, so I suggested we go. My husband agreed, but he had the typical misconceptions about Catholics and said, "We are not becoming Catholic."
All of our new pro-life friends were Catholic, but he insisted that we weren’t going to get sucked in. When we attended the Catholic church, he leaned over during Mass and said, "This is just like the Episcopalian Church."
I responded that it really was.
The next Sunday, we went back to the Lutheran church that we didn’t like. Afterwards, I was really frustrated. I told him, "I don’t know where we’re going to church or what we’re going to do."
He responded, "I thought we were going to become Catholic."
"What are you talking about?" I asked him.
"I told you I was okay with it last week," he responded.
"No, you didn’t. You said this is just like the Episcopalian Church," I replied.
He said, "That’s what I meant."
So, we talked to 40 Days for Life’s national director, Shawn Carney, about it, and he contacted his friend Marcel LeJeune, who was the RCIA director in College Station [Texas]. Marcel offered to do RCIA instruction privately with us, and so that’s what we did. Shawn was my husband’s sponsor, and Heather — one of the women who prayed outside Planned Parenthood and who I talked to the day I left — was mine.
You told your story in the book Unplanned. Remind us: What was the turning point that led you from being the director at Planned Parenthood to leaving the industry?
I had been asked to assist with an ultrasound-guided abortion. Abortions are typically blind, but the visiting physician that day wanted to show us what it looked like, using the ultrasound as a teaching tool. My job during the procedure was to hold the ultrasound probe on the woman’s abdomen.
As I did so, I saw this 13-week-old child struggle and fight for its life. It was shocking for me.
The most common question women asked during counseling was whether their babies would feel it. Planned Parenthood had come up with scripted answers that a fetus has no sensory development until 28 weeks. I wholeheartedly believed that, so I was stunned when I saw the child struggling to get away from the instruments.
A couple of other things had happened as well. I had been instructed that we needed to double our abortion numbers for the next fiscal year. I had always been told by Planned Parenthood that their goal was to reduce the number of abortions, so this was a change.
I wasn’t sure if the organization was changing or if I was just getting high enough up in the organization to see what was really going on and what the organization was doing.
So, for the first time in the eight years that I had been there, I realized that this wasn’t where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. Yet I didn’t know what to do. Initially, I tried to justify it. I didn’t want to lose my job. All of my friends were there. For the first time in many years, I sat down and prayed. I knew I couldn’t do this anymore.
Tell me about your new apostolate to abortion workers who want to leave: And Then There Were None.
When I left Planned Parenthood, I knew one day I wanted to work with abortion workers, but didn’t know how. After 40 years of legalized abortion, I thought there would be an organization out there, but there wasn’t.
When my book came out in January 2011, one of my hopes was that abortion workers would pick it up and read it and find some truth in it. They did start reading it. Seventeen workers who wanted to leave contacted me. There was no national group to refer them to.
It was then that I realized how lucky I had been to have a support system in place — and what a shame that there was nothing to help these workers transition. It’s the missing gap in the pro-life movement.
My husband and I felt personally responsible to help these workers financially, so we started the ministry. We officially launched the ministry in June. Since then, we’ve had 13 additional workers leave, for a total of 30.
It’s been beyond anything we ever could have imagined. We offer four streams of assistance: three months of financial support and job-placement support; legal help; emotional support and recovery; and spiritual support.
These workers have experienced serious trauma. They’ve seen and heard and experienced things most people cannot imagine. In the first couple of weeks after they leave, they need someone to talk to every day. The majority of those who have left have been Catholics. This is a wake-up call and a challenge to us as Catholics. We get them in contact with their pastors, priests or a spiritual director.
Do you think the Church needs to be taking a bigger role?
Our priests need to be talking and praying about healing from abortion much more. It needs to be said every week in the Prayers of the Faithful. A priest once asked me, "How often do you really expect priests to talk about this?"
I responded, "I don’t know, Father, but when I worked at Planned Parenthood, it was pretty common for women to be lying on the abortion table while holding a rosary. You tell me how often we need to be talking about this."
What are the greatest obstacles? What prevents abortion workers from leaving?
There are financial concerns. A lot of people who work in the industry are single mothers. They’re concerned about money.
Those working in the industry feel really trapped. Planned Parenthood will tell workers, "Good luck getting another job, because you’ve worked in the abortion industry, and no one is going to hire you."
Even though the medical community supports Planned Parenthood, if you have it on your résumé, it’s looked at like a puppy mill. They’re not regulated. … They skirt the law. It’s a black mark on a résumé or application, and others in the medical community are hesitant to hire you. That’s a real fear.
What percentage of abortion workers are themselves post-abortive?
We spoke about that at the 2009 Planned Parenthood convention. They had done polling and came up with the percentage that 70% of Planned Parenthood workers were post-abortive.
How can abortion workers who want to leave learn more?
They can find And Then There Were None online at ATTWN.org.
Tim Drake is director of news operations and senior editor at the Cardinal Newman Society.