Former Planned Parenthood Director Abby Johnson on Life After “Unplanned,” Spiritual Warfare, and the Future of the Pro-Life Movement
When Abby Johnson accepted my interview request, I literally screamed. Considering the content of this blog, it goes without saying that I love a good story. And Abby’s story is one for the ages.
As a college student in 2001, Abby met a Planned Parenthood representative at an on-campus volunteer fair. She was “extremely pro-choice” at the time, so she excitedly joined a clinic in nearby Bryan, Texas. There, she was tasked with escorting women from their cars, past throngs of shouting, fear-mongering protestors and into the clinic.
With time, Abby’s volunteer position gradually evolved into a career. Over eight years, she worked her way up to clinic director. As her status ascended, so did the backlash. She graduated from vague insults chanted from behind the clinic fence to targeted, personal attacks. But even amidst death threats, Abby persisted.
Then, in 2009, she was instructed to increase her clinic’s revenue. Though she oversaw a variety of programs and services, Planned Parenthood made it clear that they wanted her to focus on their cash cow: abortions. She truly believed that the organization aimed to make motherhood safer and abortions rarer, but when she challenged her supervisors, she was swiftly chastised. “Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business status,” they said. As Abby contends in her memoir Unplanned, God was prying her eyes open to the truth of the “Planned Parenthood trap.”
Only days later, she was asked to assist with an ultrasound-guided abortion performed at thirteen weeks gestation. Abby walked into the procedure room believing fetuses at that stage of development were unable to feel pain, but when she saw the foot kick away from the probe, something shifted. The scales fully fell from her eyes when the suction began and the “little body crumbled.” As she writes, “The last thing I saw was the tiny, perfectly formed backbone sucked into the tube, and then everything was gone.” In the minutes after, she struggled to reconcile her previous convictions with what she’d just witnessed:
“I closed my office door behind me, something I rarely did. Then I lowered myself into my chair and just sat there, not really focusing on anything. Just staring. I wasn’t crying. I simply felt the enormity of the moment. I found it hard to get a deep breath. I’d just participated in a death. A death. Not a medical procedure. Not a surgical solution to a life problem. Not the valiant step of a woman exercising her right to make medical choices about her own body. The death of a helpless baby, a baby violently ripped away from the safety of the womb, sucked away to be discarded as biohazard waste.”
In the following days, only a year after being named Employee of the Year, Abby resigned. She not only left the abortion industry; she left and headed straight into the pro-life movement. She contacted the Coalition for Life, a Christian organization that she often saw praying outside of her clinic. In contrast to the hostile protestors that flanked the clinic’s fence, the Coalition for Life was community and resource focused — and they welcomed Abby with open arms.
Since then, Abby has become nothing short of a pro-life celebrity. After she went public with her story, it was almost immediately picked up (and apart) by the mainstream media. Her memoir and the subsequent film only added to the fanfare. Through it all, Abby’s stance — as well as her renewed faith — have remained steadfast.
The same unwavering honesty that has both ignited and settled Abby’s media storms was present on our video call. Despite the gravity of our conversation, she had me laughing, even howling at times. Abby is quick-thinking and sarcastic, yet empathy overflows into her every word. This empathy, I’m certain, stems from the characteristic that I found most apparent: her burning love for Christ.
What stands out to me in your story is the spiritual warfare. It was apparent at the clinic, especially in the visual of people on opposite sides of the clinic fence. Then, there’s the warfare you experienced after you went public with your resignation, and even more so after the release of your memoir, followed by the film. How has God carried you through it all?
I began worrying the second I left Planned Parenthood. I was like, What did I do? Was that stupid? How are we gonna pay our bills? Then, in the days after I quit, I found myself watching Kung Fu Panda with my daughter, Gracie, who was little at the time. As this turtle character is about to die, he asks his mouse friend, “Do you know why today is called the present?” The turtle tells him it’s because today is a present — a gift. I’m sitting there watching this cartoon, worrying and worrying and worrying, and I just burst into tears. I’m thinking, that’s the key: when I wake up, the Lord gives me today. So, that’s where I’m going to look: today. He carries me through one day at a time.
Getting to that point of peace took time. It took practice to just sit and be quiet and focus on what God has for me here and now. I journaled a lot and spent a lot of time in prayer. Nothing fancy, just sitting with God like, “Lord, what are you doing here?” I wrestled with Him at times. I got aggravated — I was just so confused, you know? Eventually, the aggravation faded and I felt complete peace. I realized I didn’t want to wrestle with God anymore. I realized that He wasn’t fighting against me…He was fighting for me. And He continues to do so. But, as I always tell people: God isn’t going to abandon you because you’re mad at Him. He’ll wrestle with you for a minute, but you eventually have to realize that He’s on your side.
But, the warfare has been real. As soon as my public profile began growing, we had pastors warning us that the enemy was going to attack our marriage. We immediately began praying for ourselves as a couple. It was weird at first, but we did it because we were told to [laughs]. Now it’s normal for us. And we have a community of people covering us in prayer, too. It’s been beautiful to see the fruit of those prayers. Our marriage is strong and we have eight kids total now. Beautiful things have happened in our family.
As for the backlash from people, I’ve never really cared. I’ve received death threats, so I’ve taken proper precautions for that, but I’m not afraid of people’s opinions. I care about what the Lord thinks about me. I care about what my parents, husband, and kids think. But I’ve never been one to worry about strangers’ opinions. It’s a blessing and a curse…it gets me into trouble sometimes. But, I was made by God that way. I believe He ordains all of our steps and He knew that this would be my battle one day. He’s never laid a task before me that He didn’t equip me to complete. Even when I initially feel uncertain and question Him, when the time comes for me to step up to the plate, I’ve felt like a lion. God made me tough and strong-willed. I was a tough kid to raise [laughs]. I’m an only child; my parents were like, “We had you and we knew we couldn’t do it again.”
When you say He ordains all of our steps, what do you mean? How does that frame your understanding of your time with Planned Parenthood?
You know, I’ve had people say, “God put you in that clinic for a reason.” And I’m like, no, God didn’t put me in that clinic. God never wants us to cooperate with evil in order to do His will. He never wanted me in that clinic. But Scripture very clearly tells us that the Lord can use all things for good: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). So, even my eight years in the desert that is Planned Parenthood are now being used by God for good.
How so? Have the qualities and skills that enabled you to succeed at Planned Parenthood translated into your new work?
At PP, I learned a ton about nonprofit management, marketing, business strategy, public relations, crisis management, all of that. They arguably have the best branding strategy of any organization out there. As soon as I left, I began pouring my knowledge into the pro-life movement. I did this in a variety of ways, including the founding of And Then There Were None, a non-profit that provides financial, emotional, legal, and spiritual support for abortion workers who wish to leave the industry.
God is using my past for His glory. And my past isn’t pretty! During my time at PP, I participated in over 22,000 abortions. I had two abortions myself. I convinced people in my own family to have abortions. I have even coerced 10, 11, and 12-year-old girls to get abortions! I have done terrible things. If the Lord can use me and my past for His glory, then He can use absolutely anyone.
Yes! That’s such an important message. A lot of the people I’ve served while in prison ministry have bought into the lie that they’re “too far gone.” Stories like yours are really encouraging to them.
I hear the “too far gone” thing all the time, too. A woman once came up to me after an event and confessed that she’d had 17 abortions. She was like, “How could God ever forgive me?” And I was just like, “Ma’am even you…even you.” Even me, even you — all of us. But she thinks her sins are somehow worse than others’ because of how people respond to her. They judge her. If someone says they lied 17 times or had premarital sex 17 times, no one truly gasps. “I overindulged in food 17 times!” [feigns shock]. I say this not to downplay the reality of abortion, but because sin is sin. All sin separates us from Christ. All of it.
Why are we judging and outcasting our brothers and sisters in Christ? Why are we kicking our wounded? When people sin, why aren’t we just turning them back towards Christ? Why aren’t we saying, “Yeah, that sin separated you from God, let’s get you back into His full graces. Let’s put it at the foot of the Cross.” Why aren’t we saying that? Because I know I’ve never lived a sinless day. It’s amazing to me, the people who sit on a throne of judgment. They gasp at another person’s sin, but never gasp at their own.
I think that’s a real reason why people turn away from the church. The church gets laser-focused on one particular sin, instead of really looking inward and trying to figure out how to reconcile the church, as a body, to Jesus Christ. Instead of pushing people out, let’s work on our sins together, as the body of Christ — as a community.
Do you think that the tide is turning on that? Do you, for instance, think that the community and resource-driven pro-life organizations are growing louder than the hateful “you’re a baby killer” camp?
Yeah, I do. I think that the younger generations see that love is what really wins people over. Screaming through a clinic fence that a woman is a murderer or that she’s going to hell doesn’t make her think, “Hm, I bet I can have a rational conversation with this person.” That’s not inviting. Love makes a difference. Factual information makes a difference.
Women aren’t having abortions because they want to have abortions. Women are having abortions because they feel like they have no other choice. Just yesterday, I was counseling a woman at my local pregnancy center who said, verbatim, “I think abortion is the worst thing a woman can do, but I don’t feel like I have any other choice.” So I said, “What can I do to help you feel like you have other options?” It was financial for her. I said, “My gosh, I don’t want you to kill your baby because you don’t have rent money!” Like we can solve that, you know? We connected her to resources, which guaranteed her rent, and she walked out and didn’t have an abortion. There are resources available…our job as pro-lifers is to connect women to them. Our role is that of a problem solver. We have to show them that there are other options out there — options that are life-giving.
Speaking of life-giving…many of our readers are nonbelievers. What is your message to them?
To start, I know a lot of people are non-believers because they’ve been hurt by believers. They’ve been pushed away by the church. I understand that in a very deep and personal way. If that’s you, I encourage you to keep searching. In the past, I’ve put the blame for others’ mistakes on Christ…I thought God was the problem, when it was really just people.
Christ’s love is perfect. It’s the epitome of perfection. I lived without Him for so long, but now that I know the perfect peace and joy that comes with walking with Him, I can’t ever imagine being without it again. And I want everyone to have it, too.
Frankly, if you’re reading this blog, you’re looking for it. Well, Scripture promises that if you search for God, you’ll find Him: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Don’t give up your search because of the stain of mankind. People will always fail you — God will not.
Connect with Abby on Facebook and Instagram — and be sure to check out her memoir, Unplanned.
Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.