Former Planned Parenthood director details turn of heart

Baptist Press
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Posted: Dec 08, 2009 5:15 PM
BRYAN, Texas (BP)--Abby Johnson had never felt so alone. Sitting in her Planned Parenthood office and weeping, Johnson, who was raised Southern Baptist, knew God had called her to leave her job as director of the women's health and abortion clinic and join forces with the Coalition for Life advocates just down the street.

The call was unmistakable. But the courage to take the step of faith to leave her job with no other prospects in sight -- and invest herself in a movement that was diametrically opposed to the life she had lived the past eight years -- was harder to muster.

Other than her husband Doug, she had no one she could confide in. Her co-workers, whom she considered friends, would not understand her decision. Christian ideals, Johnson said, often were mocked by the Planned Parenthood employees and the pro-choice advocates she knew. So she kept quiet.

She believed her church would not understand either. The Johnsons were members of an Episcopal church because they had been turned away from membership in the Baptist congregations they visited. She said some in those congregations made clear that she and her husband were welcome to attend worship services, but church membership was another matter.

But the Episcopal congregation they joined supported her efforts in her job at Planned Parenthood.

So there she sat. Counting the days until the next abortion would be performed in her clinic, knowing she could have no part in it -- and coming to the numbing realization that, beyond her home, there was no one to tell her she was making the right choice.

Except the people down the street.

Johnson and the staff of the Coalition for Life knew each other. It was not an antagonistic relationship but a mutual acknowledgement that they stood on opposing sides of a great divide over abortion. When Johnson walked into the back door of the coalition offices on Oct. 6, the staff was stunned.

What brought Johnson, 29, to that monumental moment was a compassionate heart for others -- a trait that led her to Planned Parenthood's staff and stayed intact while she denied the harsh realities of abortion. It was that same compassion -- stirred by the Holy Spirit and witnessing an abortion via an ultrasound -- that brought reality into focus.

"I grew up Southern Baptist," said Johnson, who moved from her native Louisiana to Texas as a teenager.

Since her decision to leave Planned Parenthood and embrace the pro-life message, Johnson's story has made international headlines and she has given interviews on several cable television news programs.

Johnson admitted to being rather naive regarding feminism and the abortion issue when she left home for Texas A&M University in 1997.

"I remember my mom saying, 'We are pro-life,'" she said in a telephone interview. But that was the end of the discussion. The family didn't speak in-depth about such things, she recalled.

So when seeking volunteer opportunities at Texas A&M, Johnson was drawn to the Planned Parenthood display, unaware of the organization's involvement in the abortion industry. The booth attendant spoke about women's health and women's rights and Johnson thought, "Well, that sounds good."

She began her association with the Bryan Planned Parenthood clinic as a volunteer escort. On one of the two weekends per month that abortions were performed at the clinic, Johnson would walk women from their cars to the clinic, staving off any potential harassment from pro-life protesters. Johnson said she enjoyed the interaction with the women she believed she was helping.

"I learned more about the pro-choice movement, and the longer you're there the more you accept what they say. I really started buying into it."

Her parents did not approve of her involvement. Johnson has come to know that many people in her family and her parents' church were praying for her. But through the years Johnson was able to justify her actions.

"Planned Parenthood was about prevention , not abortion. I really believed that."

Just one week before she left the clinic, the staff had helped a woman discover she had cancer. There were legitimately good things happening at the Planned Parenthood facility, she reasoned.

Johnson's volunteer activities had led to a paid position with the clinic, giving pre-abortion counseling. The information she offered focused not on choices but on the procedure -- what the client could expect before, during and after the abortion. As Johnson was about to graduate with her degree in psychology, the clinic promoted her to director of community outreach and health education. The job allowed Johnson to extol the virtues of the women's health services that Planned Parenthood provided in the conservative community of Bryan-College Station. It also afforded Johnson's conscience a rationalization -- she was working for better health and the prevention of unplanned pregnancies through birth control.

Shortly after marrying Doug, she became pregnant. It was an unplanned but not unwanted pregnancy. Johnson thought it would be awkward for her, as a pregnant woman, to give abortion counseling.

On the contrary, her then-director replied, "It will be good for them to see what they don't want," Johnson recalled being told.

Workers at all Planned Parenthood facilities are forbidden to use the word "baby," Johnson said. During her pregnancy Johnson began to see the disconnect between the philosophy of the ardent pro-choice movement and a woman's choice to carry a pregnancy to term. She quoted a liberal clergywoman as stating, "It's a baby when you decide you want to be a mother."

The Johnsons choice resulted in the birth of a little girl they named Grace.

With Grace's birth in November 2006, the Johnsons knew they needed to be in church. They had stopped attending because they could not find a church that would allow them to join as long as Johnson worked for Planned Parenthood. In retrospect, Johnson said she was rather put off by the exclusion. She said Baptist churches denied them membership but did little or nothing to explain why or to disciple the couple in a way that might have led her to leave her job.

Instead, the couple sought out a church that would not criticize or question her work. The Episcopal church they joined "was very supportive of Planned Parenthood and my job," Johnson said. One of her co-workers also attended the church and two other clinic employees were Catholic. In choosing to join the church, Johnson sealed a self-affirming bubble of colleagues, friends, and church family who would not call her to account for the apparent contradiction in her own life of professing Christ and supporting the abortion industry.

But her Christian faith would not let her ignore the conflict.

"Faith is what led me out of the abortion industry. But it was a struggle many times," Johnson said. The clinic performed abortions two Saturdays a month. Although she was not directly involved in the procedure most of the time, there were times when she was present during an abortion and, the next day, felt guilty as she sat in church.

Despite twinges of remorse, Johnson still adamantly believed she was pro-choice. The clinic, she rationalized, provided so many other services that were a benefit to women that the abortions could be considered only a minor, though profitable, branch of the business.

But when Johnson, who had been promoted to director of the clinic in 2007, was approached by her superior about the need to bring in more money to the clinic via abortions, she became troubled.

The family planning services that Johnson wholeheartedly promoted were a financial drain on the clinic. The real money-maker was the $500 abortions and distribution of RU486, the so-called "morning after" pill.

Johnson's defense of her work at the clinic had been based on the preventative measures championed by Planned Parenthood. Those services, she said, were part of her personal definition of "pro-choice." A nonprofit organization should not be so concerned about making money, she thought. When she questioned the directive as being contrary to the organization's goal of prevention, Johnson was told she needed to get her priorities straight.

Though the clinic maintained its twice-monthly abortion schedule, the flow of RU486 swelled. The medication, which ends a days-old pregnancy by halting the flow of hormones that maintain the health of the uterine lining, must be taken as an outpatient treatment. The clinic increased the number of days each week they would make the prescription available. The medication, Johnson reported, cost the same as an in-service abortion.

Then in late September Johnson was asked to assist with an abortion. A third set of hands was needed. Usually the process involves only the doctor and nurse practitioner. But on this day the doctor on call was using an ultrasound machine during the procedure and needed assistance with the abdominal probe. This, Johnson said, was how he performed abortions in his own clinic.

The use of the ultrasound is not common, she said, because it takes longer to perform the procedure, but it is the safest practice because it allows the physician to see inside the uterus and view in detail exactly what he is doing.

It gave Johnson the same vantage point.

"I'm watching . I didn't want to look but I couldn't stop," she recalled. She saw the cannula -- the instrument used to remove the fetus -- move toward the 13-week-old baby. And she continued to watch as the tiny life recoiled in vain from the instrument.

"The first thing I thought about was Grace," Johnson said, recalling that first ultrasound image of her daughter Grace and how she posted it on the refrigerator and sent copies to family members.

While watching the abortion take place in real time, she said she recognized the fact that there had been a life in the woman, and she had played a part in ending it. Johnson went to the recovery room later in the afternoon to check on the woman. The guilt became overwhelming.

"I had taken away her chance to be a mother," she said.

Johnson did a lot of praying and crying. Her husband was sympathetic and supportive of any decision she made, but there was no one in the clinic she could speak to for counsel.

"I felt very alone," she said. All of Johnson's friends at work and church were invested in the Planned Parenthood claim that its work was about women's health and rights. Addressing the issue from a biblical perspective was out of the question.

"There is no spirituality in abortion. God is not present in the abortion facilities," Johnson said.

Nor is He welcome, she said.

"The people who work there don't have any kind of faith. You're kind of an outcast in the organization if you are a professing Christian."

At the clinic, she added, pro-life Christians are associated with people like Scott Roeder who shot and killed late-term abortionist George Tiller in the foyer of his Wichita, Kan., church last May. A victim mentality is pervasive in the organization, she said.

Johnson reluctantly returned to work the next Monday, the week coming and going with no decisive action on her part. The next week would be different.

"I felt like the clock was ticking. There would be more abortions on Saturday. I'm sitting in my office. I don't want to be there and I'm crying. And Saturday was coming."

She knew what she had to do, but needed the extra measure of faith to step out. She saw two women from the nearby Coalition for Life center praying outside her clinic. The women were taking part in the 40 Days for Life campaign, which organized prayer vigils outside abortion clinics from late September through early November (www.40daysforlife.com).

"God was shouting at me to go to the center."

So she did.

Johnson drove the short distance to the center, afraid if she was seen by her staff walking there it would cause suspicion. She parked in the back of the building and made a call.

A staff member inside had seen the car pull in and called out jokingly to Bobby Reynoso, Coalition for Life director of communications, that Abby Johnson was there to see him. When the call came through, the staffer, now serious, told Reynoso that Johnson was outside crying.

The Planned Parenthood director walked into the Coalition for Life center, Reynoso recalled, and "our jaws just hit the floor." He said they sat down with her and listened as she poured out her story of stress and conviction. She had come to their doorstep to confess she could no longer be a part of abortion.

"It's not what we were expecting. But as Christians we should be," Reynoso said. After all, the pro-life volunteers had been praying faithfully outside the clinic for years and, most recently, during the 40 Days for Life. The director of the Bryan Coalition for Life, Shawn Carney, is co-founder of the prayer campaign, which has gained international attention. The staff and volunteers had prayed specifically for Johnson.

Reynoso said he previously had some interaction with Johnson and had observed her as he prayed on the sidewalks outside the Planned Parenthood clinic. She always appeared to be a compassionate, caring person, genuinely concerned for the well-being of her clients and staff.

The rhetoric of Planned Parenthood plays upon that sense of compassion, leading its staff and volunteers to believe they are working in the best interest of women, Reynoso said. Johnson knew what abortion was on paper, he said, but had grown numb to its destructive nature until witnessing it on the ultrasound.

"It's the wolf in sheep's clothing," he said. "It sounds compassionate."

Reynoso said Coalition for Life members have been excited to be a part of what has unfolded before them but can take little, if any, credit for the miracle that has taken place.

Since turning in her resignation in October, Johnson has made numerous media appearances. She will be speaking more publicly after the New Year when her family has had time to process her transition. She asked that Christians pray for her as she looks for a new job and, most likely, a new church. She said her parents were thrilled with her decision and her parents' pastor even contacted her with words of encouragement.

Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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