Amid Controversy, Abby Johnson Speaks at Catholic University of America

University alumni and some student-led groups — such as the university’s Black Student Alliance (BSA) — protested Johnson’s speech.

Abby Johnson
Abby Johnson (photo: Courtesy photo /

WASHINGTON — Pro-life activist Abby Johnson addressed students at The Catholic University of America this week amid protests by students and alumni.

On Tuesday evening, Johnson spoke at an event of the university’s college Republicans after her originally scheduled speech — to have been hosted by the university’s pro-life group Cardinals for Life — was postponed indefinitely.

The postponement came after student groups and university alumni, as well as people outside the university, protested Johnson’s previous statements on racial issues and vaccines.

According to Johnson, she was originally invited around a year-and-a-half ago to speak at an event hosted by Cardinals for Life. University president John Garvey said in a statement on Tuesday that the group had gotten permission from the university for the speech, which would focus on Johnson’s conversion story Unplanned.

Johnson is a well-known pro-life activist, who often speaks at colleges and public events on her conversion from a Planned Parenthood facility worker to the pro-life movement. A Feb. 6 statement by campus chaplain Fr. Jude DeAngelo noted Johnson’s “powerful” conversion story as an impetus for inviting her to speak.

Her original speech at CUA was rescheduled multiple times due to restrictions on in-person gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was finally determined that Johnson would address students remotely on Feb. 9.

Just days before the event, however, Johnson said she became aware of opposition to her speech on Friday, Feb. 5.

University alumni and some student-led groups — such as the university’s Black Student Alliance (BSA) — protested Johnson’s speech. The school’s BSA claimed that Johnson was “solely anti-abortion rather than pro-life,” and accused her of “blatant racism, sexism, and homophobia.”

A petition on the liberal site was also circulated, protesting the decision to host Johnson. The petition, with more than 2,300 signatures, cited Johnson’s “recent videos and Twitter posts” that included “egregiously racist remarks and arguments.” Signers also brought up Johnson’s statements rejecting Church pronouncements on vaccines as problematic.

Amid the growing controversy over Johnson’s speech to CUA students, university chaplain Fr. Jude DeAngelo on Feb. 5 issued an apology from the student campus ministry Instagram account. He said he “failed to foster dialogue” between groups supporting and opposing Johnson’s appearance.

Fr. DeAngelo apologized “specifically to our students of color, who feel marginalized and unheard,” and noted Johnson’s previous controversial statements, “what many of us saw as her endorsement of racial profiling by police and her comments denigrating the black community.”

The pro-life student group had gone through “extensive discernment” over Johnson’s invite, he said, and had previously hoped that her story could convince skeptical listeners to “overlook her personal political stand.” However, Fr. DeAngelo added that he had “attempted” to “help [Cardinals for Life] realize that they are in a lose-lose situation” with regard to the event.

By Monday, “I was expecting a cancellation,” Johnson recalled to CNA in an interview on Tuesday. Later on Monday evening, her speech was postponed indefinitely by Cardinals for Life, and the Daily Caller reported that the group’s president had resigned.

In a letter to Garvey, senior Anna Stephens said that she was “pressured, against my conscience, by the University Chaplain in his capacity as adviser to Cardinals for Life” into postponing Johnson’s speech.

Reached by CNA on Wednesday, Fr. DeAngelo declined to comment.

In a Feb. 9 statement on the Cardinals for Life Instagram page, the group’s executive board explained why it voted to postpone the event.

Johnson was initially asked to share her conversion story, and the group stood by its original invite while also acknowledging Johnson’s “numerous” statements that “called into question our decision to invite her.”

Amid the uproar over her appearance, “[a]s pro-life ministers, we feared that Abby’s message against abortion would fall on deaf ears,” the board members explained the postponement. They emphasized the importance of “dialogue and trust” amid division.

Johnson told CNA that “I sort of expect this when I speak on a college campus, honestly.”

“I tend to bring controversy, whether I’m at a secular school or a Christian school or a Catholic school,” she said.

After the postponement, the college’s student Republican group promptly stepped in and asked Johnson to address them on Tuesday evening. She accepted, and the group named the event “Fight for Life.”

The group acknowledged on its Instagram page that “this is a decision that is bound to upset many students, and it’s not one that we came to lightly.”

“Our members have placed their trust and faith in us to advance their beliefs, and even when unpopular, we will continue to do so,” the group said.

Meanwhile, the college’s Student Government Association Diversity and Inclusion Initiative organized another event at the same time as Johnson’s speech to Republicans, titled “Recenter, Refocus, Remind: A Conversation on the Consistent Ethic of Life.”

Johnson encouraged opposing students to listen to her Tuesday talk and ask her questions during the question-and-answer portion of the event.

Johnson has drawn controversy numerous times for her statements on racial issues, politics, and vaccines in the last two years.

In Sept., 2019, Johnson was criticized for calling a Black Pentecostal bishop “Tyrone,” which is a racial slang term, in a Twitter argument. In the same argument, Swan had referred to Johnson as the derogatory slang for white women, “Becky.” Johnson later said on Twitter “I apologize if my words in response to being called derogatory slurs came across as racially malicious.” 

In a June, 2020 Facebook Live monologue on the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death, Johnson appeared to say it would be acceptable for police to racially-profile her biracial son.

Johnson also spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention where she called President Trump “the most pro-life president we’ve ever had.” She also attended the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally outside the White House that protested alleged election fraud. Johnson admitted to walking to the U.S. Capitol afterward to deliver a pre-planned speech — as the building was being stormed by rioters. Johnson said was not aware of the breach of the building until she arrived on the Capitol grounds.

Johnson told CNA that she walked around the building looking for her speech audience, but left the premises after she heard a woman was shot inside in the Capitol, and after she saw what appeared to be tear gas deployed. “I was in no way, shape, or form involved” in the invasion of the Capitol building, she told CNA.

Johnson has also said she rejects the teaching of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB) and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for their statements on COVID-19 vaccines.

She has suggested that it is immoral to utilize vaccines if cell lines from aborted fetuses have been used in the testing process - a common practice for most modern medications - even if the cell lines are not in the production of the vaccines itself. 

Both the USCCB and the Vatican have taught that it is licit for Catholics to receive a COVID-19 vaccine with a remote connection to cell lines of an aborted baby, if no alternative ethical vaccine is available.

“And then they talk out of both sides of their mouth,” she said of the USCCB, accusing them of hypocrisy in condemning abortion but approving of the use of such vaccines connected to abortions. Johnson also told CNA that the CDF document was “not infallible doctrine.”

“I’m certainly allowed to say that I personally believe that receiving these vaccines, tainted, that were born off the backs of aborted children, is wrong,” she said, claiming that she could also believe the CDF note contained “error.”

When asked by CNA if she stood by her previous statements on vaccines and in response to the George Floyd protests, Johnson said that she did.

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