Former Planned Parenthood director to convert to Catholicism
By Valerie Schmalz
Special to The Catholic Key
SAN FRANCISCO - The woman who walked away from her job as a Planned Parenthood clinic director after helping with an ultrasound-guided abortion is on the verge of entering the Catholic Church.
photo courtesy of Catholic San
Former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson addresses participants at the West Coast Walk for Life Jan. 22.
Abby Johnson, 30, who spoke at the Walk for Life West Coast rally in San Francisco Jan. 22, is preparing with her husband Doug to enter the Catholic Church in her native Texas within the next few months. The couple has a 4-year-old daughter.
“When we went to the Catholic Church for the first time we knew that was where we were supposed to be and we have been there ever since,” said Johnson, who said she particularly loves the church’s reverence for Mary as the mother of God. “The more we started learning about the beliefs of the church and the Eucharist and everything, it seemed like this was what had been missing our whole lives.”
After eight years as a Planned Parenthood volunteer and employee, Johnson walked away from her job as director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan/College Station, Texas, Oct. 6, 2009 during a prayer vigil by 40 Days for Life. Johnson, who had two abortions at 20 and at 23, first began working as a clinic escort while a student at Texas A&M University. Assisting with an ultrasound during an abortion in September 2009 turned her into a pro-life advocate.
Johnson’s embrace of Catholicism was a natural development after she became pro-life but was precipitated by her pro-choice Episcopalian community’s vocal rejection of her change of heart, she said. Even before the dramatic experience of assisting in an ultrasound abortion, Johnson said God had been calling to her for several months through the penitential rite of the Episcopal service, which is similar to the Catholic prayer. With the Episcopalian Church one of the largest donors to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Johnson said she and her husband were not going to remain at the church anyway.
Johnson describes the experience of assisting with the ultrasound abortion in her book “Unplanned: the Dramatic True Story of the Planned Parenthood Leader Who Crossed the Life Line to Fight for Women in Crisis,” written with Cindy Lambert (Ignatius Press, 2011). In the book’s first chapter, Johnson describes holding the ultrasound probe on the woman’s abdomen and watching the screen as the abortion doctor worked and the mother cried. The fetus was at 13 weeks gestation based on the abortion doctor’s estimate, Johnson wrote.
“At first, the baby didn’t seem aware of the cannula,” she writes. “It gently probed the baby’s side, and for a quick second I felt relief. Of course, I thought. The fetus doesn’t feel pain. I had reassured countless women of this as I’d been taught by Planned Parenthood. The fetal tissue feels nothing as it is removed. Get a grip, Abby. This is a simple, quick medical procedure. My head was working hard to control my responses, but I couldn’t shake an inner disquiet that was quickly mounting to horror as I watched the screen.
“The next movement was the sudden jerk of a tiny foot as the baby started kicking, as if it were trying to move away from the probing invader,” she continues. “As the cannula pressed its side, the baby began struggling to turn and twist away. It seemed clear to me that it could feel the cannula, and it did not like what it was feeling. And then the doctor’s voice broke through, startling me.
“‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ he said lightheartedly to the nurse. He was telling her to turn on the suction – in an abortion the suction isn’t turned on until the doctor feels he has the cannula in exactly the right place.
“I had a sudden urge to yell, ‘Stop!’”
(According to a description by Priests for Life, the cannula is a hollow plastic tube that is connected to a vacuum-type pump by a flexible hose. The abortionist runs the tip of the cannula along the surface of the uterus causing the baby to be dislodged and sucked into the tube – either whole or in pieces.)
Johnson watched the entire abortion and went home, shaking and in tears, to tell her husband she had to find a new job. A few days later she walked out of the clinic and joined people praying outside the clinic. They were members of the 40 Days for Life group, which had held six prayer vigils outside her clinic and whose headquarters was just a few doors away.
Johnson is in the process of obtaining an annulment of the marriage to the man who was her husband at the time she had her abortions, so that she and her husband Doug can convalidate their marriage and enter the church. “We are ready to come into the church as soon as we are able,” Johnson said.
Johnson also counsels others who have left the abortion industry, she said, and there are more than most people would think. Those who walk at the Walk for Life are giving an important witness, she said: “In California, one of the most pro-choice and liberal states in the country it is important to show up en masse and tell the leaders of the state and the leaders of our nation how important the sanctity of life is to us.
“We do not have the luxury anymore to stand around and say I can’t tell someone what to do,” Johnson said. “When it comes to taking the lives of our children, we don’t want to give our opinion? That doesn’t make sense.”
Planned Parenthood Federation of America is the leading provider of abortions in the U.S., with 324,008 of the 1.21 million abortions reported in 2008 performed at a Planned Parenthood clinic, the organization reports. From 1973 through 2008, nearly 50 million legal abortions occurred, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s research arm. The number of abortions dropped from 1.31 million in 2000 to 1.21 million in 2008, but the long-term decline stalled during 2005-2008.
About one in three women will have an abortion between the ages of 15 and 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which draws its statistics from abortion providers and is generally regarded as the most statistically valid source of information on abortion. In the U.S., Planned Parenthood’s 87 affiliates operate more than 825 health centers, according to a Planned Parenthood fact sheet.
A version of this story originally appeared in Catholic San Francisco.