I’ve been listening to Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned, her personal story of being recruited as a Planned Parenthood volunteer in college, rising through the ranks to clinic director, and eventually crossing the lines and joining the Coalition For Life. It’s not a new book, as it was originally released in 2010, but the audio book has been a hot commodity at my library recently, undoubtedly because it was just released as a movie earlier this year (how I was not aware of this and of the accompanying drama, I don’t know) . Funny thing is, you’ve probably already decided already whether you like the book or not, depending on whether you’re pro-Life or pro-Choice, without ever having to read it. But it’s not simple propaganda. It’s about Abby’s personal moral journey, and it’s very human — no talking points. It wasn’t the morality surrounding abortion itself that is so interesting (as I’ve pretty much formed my opinions on the subject), but the morality associated with the stories within the story. So many topics worthy of discussion!
First, Abby says she was raised religious by loving, supportive parents in a conservative church, and she sounded perfectly comfortable with those values and beliefs. She was a great student in high school with accomplishments and accolades. But the moment she went to college, she became a self-described party girl. Not only did her grades drop, but she got pregnant and had an abortion. She married the guy (against her parents’ warnings) and divorced him a couple years later. In other words, it sounds like her life after leaving home became an immediate trainwreck. It doesn’t sound like she’d rejected the morals she’d been taught as a kid — she still seemed to believe them — but they simply didn’t affect her behavior. Even in hindsight Abby seemed at a loss to explain it. Her abortion was traumatic for her, but she locked it away in a box in her psyche and never gave it any thought. She didn’t tell her parents about the abortion, but they knew about much of her behavior and didn’t approve of it. They (especially her mother) still maintained a good relationship with her, including near-daily phone calls. My question is how it was possible for a young person to be raised with strong conservative values, which she never disavowed, to go totally off the rails like that? I’ve seen it happen in our church as well, of course, and I’ve always wondered how it can be that somebody’s genuine intellectual allegiance can be so divorced from the contents of their character.
Second question. Abby was recruited at a non-profit fair at Texas A&M by Planned Parenthood. She was told pro-Life people wanted to take away women’s reproductive rights, and many weren’t just against abortion but contraception as well, and how that led desperate women to seek back-alley abortions. Abby was a psychology major and wanted to help desperate women in crisis, so she volunteered. On her first day, she got to see the horrible pro-Lifers up close. They knew which day was abortion day, and they were gathered against the fence, some protesting, some praying. Abby was assigned to meet women in the parking lot as soon as they opened their car doors and escort them into the building. Her job as an escort was to provide a psychological shield against the pro-Life harassment through the fence and provide comfort and support to women who were making a difficult decision in difficult circumstances. She described the shouting, the guy wearing the enormous Grim Reaper costume, and the woman with the gruesome picture of an aborted fetus raised high on a placard. The experience rocked her sufficiently that she didn’t volunteer again for a couple weeks, but in the end, it created a sense of outrage against pro-Life nastiness and cemented her resolve to help these distressed women stand against them. However, she realized with time that the protesters weren’t a homogeneous group, and that some actually seemed quite nice. The nice ones didn’t seem to be shaming or harassing her clients, but genuinely wanting to help them and give them an alternative to abortion. As time passed, the nicer protesters tamed the more obnoxious ones, and the shouting, the Grim Reaper, and fetus placard disappeared. There was still tension, but she could exchange pleasantries with them and they seemed genuinely friendly, giving her flowers with bible verses and helping to settle disputes with the strident protesters who were doing things like taking pictures of the girls visiting the clinic and posting them online or sending them to the girls’ parents.
Abby makes the case that the protesters who were praying and showing love did a lot more good than those who were shaming or “protesting,” and they were the ones she could turn to when she wanted out of Planned Parenthood. She’d come to view the nice ones as genuine, and reciprocally, they recognized her desire to do good as being genuine as well. She felt the other protesters actually just made the divide worse.
On the one hand, I see her point. My personal philosophy, whether I manage to live it or not, is that acting with love is ALWAYS the right thing to do. And yet, I can’t quite condemn the more obnoxious protesters. Many pro-Lifers view unborn babies as people. Say there was a legal concentration camp in your community where the guards were routinely executing helpless and persecuted people. Would you just stand at the gate and try to be friendly with the guards, hoping they might eventually see the error of their ways? Or would the fact that those guards were facilitating the deaths of human beings motivate you to try to act with more urgency, maybe even violence? Don’t get me wrong, I’m adamantly against resorting to violence to protest abortion clinics, and I reject the tactics some of the protesters were using, but I can see how I might feel differently if I personally considered a 14-week abortion to be the same as murder .
The next question is similar to the last, and it seems pertinent to the continuing discussion here at W&T as to how inclusive the church should be and at what point people should be excluded. Abby was a believer. She and her husband wanted to go to church, so they found one they liked. The church (Baptist, I believe) had a public pro-Life stance, so she kept quiet about her job. In fact, one of the kind things the leader of the pro-Life people at the fence did for Abby was to keep quiet and not out her to her congregation. Eventually, though, the secret came out. She and her husband continued to attend and people weren’t overtly hostile, but when she and her husband expressed a desire to actually join, the pastor said no. He said she was welcome to continue to attend, but since she worked for Planned Parenthood, they couldn’t let her join. She felt the rejection keenly.
She and her husband then started attending an Episcopal church. She wasn’t used to high church with a formal liturgy, and she discovered she found a great deal of peace in it. The Episcopal church had an official pro-Choice stance, and I think a couple of her co-workers attended there as well. She’d been attending for years when she changed sides. When news of her defection spread, there was a great deal of push back from the congregation, and she says she received several emails from people suggesting that she should no longer attend. She and her husband met with the priest, and after a long discussion, she realized they again had to find another church.
Abby found both experiences very painful, and she thought both churches were wrong to reject her like that. She wasn’t quite sure what they should have done, but she definitely felt like they should have done more to pull her in, not kick her out. But what, exactly? Her first church had the position that she was committing heinous sin as a matter of profession. The second church had taken an official position with which she originally agreed, and which she now said God had revealed to her was wrong. Should either church embrace a person who was so publicly rejecting their positions?
The last question, and the big one for me, was sparked by Abby’s revelation that when counseling at Planned Parenthood led to a woman choosing adoption over abortion, she, as director of the clinic, would refer the woman to a pro-Life Christian adoption services. It made me wonder. Could pro-Choicers and pro-Lifers actually work together to help women and reduce abortion? Abby joined Planned Parenthood because she wanted to help distressed women and reduce abortions, especially unsafe abortions, by providing care and contraception. She wanted to do good. She never espoused later term abortions and certainly not when the fetus was viable out of the womb. She was sure many of her co-workers felt the same way and were just as motivated by the desire to do good. During her career at Planned Parenthood, she felt that many of her efforts actually reduced the number of abortions. However, towards the end of that career, Planned Parenthood’s budget problem made her wonder. It turns out that free services aren’t really free — somebody has to pay for them. Planned parenthood collected money from clients for abortions, and abortions were by far the most lucrative service they had to offer. Consequently, Abby claims the organization was putting pressure on her Bryan, TX clinic to perform more abortions to get the revenue up. Even worse, she claims that Planned Parenthood was building a large clinic in Houston that might even perform abortions as late as 24 weeks, and she felt all of that had to do with making money (later term abortions provided even more revenue). Whatever the motivations of many of the employees, she felt the organization’s incentives were aligned with abortion.
What if those incentives weren’t there? What if Planned Parenthood had the budget to fulfill its mission of assisting women with their reproductive health and making abortion safe, legal, and RARE . What if all pro-Life people acknowledged a woman’s agency with respect to abortion, and instead focused on programs to promote valuing life and providing options and assistance to support to women who choose life? Abby felt that the best-hearted and best-minded people on both sides weren’t actually so far apart. If she’s right, couldn’t both sides work together and dramatically reduce abortion and provide services for women?
Yes, this is a total pipe dream, and one that only be had by a person like me, who abhors abortion and yet feels the option shouldn’t be legally removed, at least until the baby is nearly viable outside the womb . There are pro-Choicers who consider abortion the equivalent of pulling a weed (my deceased co-worker, for example), and there are pro-Lifers who see abortion as murder, pure and simple, regardless of the circumstances. Between these two camps, there’s no middle ground to yield. But it does seem to me that many people are at least toward the middle a little ways. It’s just that the highly polarizing rhetoric simply pulls them into one camp or the other. Much like politics these days. Personally, I’d love to see a coalition in the middle that works to promote life and provide alternatives to women while not taking away their choices.
I really enjoyed Abby Johnson’s account, and would highly recommend it, audio or text. She certainly doesn’t come off looking like a hero, and she knows it. Nor do I think she ended up in the place I find myself. We undoubtedly disagree on some things. But I found her spiritual transformation to be profound, and there were several anecdotes I found especially compelling  I also liked vicariously viewing her friends and opponents through her eyes, especially as she changed sides of the fence. In short, this book is anything but simple propaganda.
 The MPAA gave it an R-rating, due to a few graphic abortion-related scenes, not due to typical nudity, violence, or language. One executive associated with the movie said “[a] 15 year-old-girl can get an abortion without her parent’s permission, but she can’t see this movie without adult supervision? That’s sad.” Also, several TV networks refused to allow the film to be promoted, sparking accusations that the liberal elite were trying to bury it. But Wikipedia claims it still grossed $18 million dollars, three times its budget.
 For a good discussion on why I might not consider abortion to be the same as murder, at least before the baby is viable outside the womb, see Angela’s post at BCC.
 You can argue Planned Parenthood’s intentions, but abortion in the US is simply NOT rare. Depending on whose numbers you want to believe, there were somewhere between 600,000 to nearly 1 million in 2018. The Guttmacher Institute reports that approximately 1 in 5 US pregnancies terminates in induced abortion.
 I feel that in the case of rape and health risks to the mother, the option to abort must be available. A woman who is raped has been horrendously violated, her choice taken away. Giving her back her choice, and allowing her to work with God as to what to do next, seems right. Also, if it were my wife or daughter whose pregnancy threatened her health, who risked leaving her children motherless and her husband a widower, I cannot abide the thought that the government would have say in whether the risk was acceptable or not.
 One, for example, was from a woman who’d been impregnated by her rapist, had an abortion, and returned periodically to the clinic for guilt and grief counseling. She told Abby she understood that she wasn’t at all responsible for the rape — that it wasn’t her choice. But killing her baby, she said, that was her choice, and she didn’t see how she would ever be able to live with that.