UPDATED November 3, 2019, 6:15 p.m.
Last week, Abby Johnson, the director of a Texas Planned Parenthood health center that provides abortions, among its other services including birth control, annual exams, and sexually transmitted infection prevention and treatment, resigned citing a “conversion” that caused her to see abortion in an entirely new light. Her resignation came just weeks after the 40 Days for Life anti-choice campaign wrapped up its annual protest in front of the clinic.
Television and online news outlets are reporting that her change of heart was the result of viewing an ultrasound. From Fox News, Johnson is reported as saying:
When I was working at Planned Parenthood I was extremely pro-choice,” Johnson told FoxNews.com. But after seeing the internal workings of the procedure for the first time on an ultrasound monitor [editor’s note: emphasis mine], “I would say there was a definite conversion in my heart … a spiritual conversion.
From a television interview on a local Texas station:
One of the most basic questions I have is this: How did Ms. Johnson become the director of a Planned Parenthood center that provides abortions up to 14 weeks—that is technically a second trimester abortion—without having seen an ultrasound image of a fetus in utero or an actual abortion being performed? When a woman comes into a health center and takes a pregnancy test to confirm pregnancy and then requests an abortion, providers need to give her an ultrasound to ensure that the pregnancy isn’t ectopic and to figure out how far along in the pregnancy the woman is, among other things. Ultrasounds, at the health center I worked at for seven years, were a routine part of care. Marcy Bloom, former executive director at Aradia Womens’ Health Center (the clinic at which I worked), says, “Pre-abortion ultrasound is the standard of care in the United States.”
Some women wanted to see the ultrasound image and some didn’t. It almost never swayed them, of course, because (shock!), the women knew there was a fetus growing inside them and didn’t need an image on a screen to make them aware. But, also, because 61 percent of women who get abortions are already mothers—mothers who generally receive ultrasounds during pregnancy—they are aware of what an ultrasound will reveal.
All employees at the feminist women’s health center I worked in—from the communications and outreach staff to the women who performed client intake—were offered the chance to view an abortion as a means of understanding how abortion is performed and how best to assist women undergoing the procedure. This was all done with the consent of the client, of course. Now, as with any surgical procedure, there were certainly employees who did not work directly with clients for whom viewing an abortion was the last thing in the world they wanted to see. And that makes sense. Of course, this was a feminist health center and we did do things differently. However, it is still hard to understand how Ms. Johnson didn’t know what an actual abortion entailed.
The 40 Days for Life campaign started in Bryan/College Station, Texas—the campaign that seemed to spur Ms. Johnson’s conversion. The 40 Days for Life campaign web site puts it this way:
Abby Johnson worked at Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas for eight years. She was there when the first-ever 40 Days for Life campaign was conducted outside of her workplace in the Bryan/College Station community in 2004.
She was there for the next 40 Days for Life effort as well — the one that helped to launch the first nationally coordinated 40 Days for Life campaign in the fall of 2007.
And she was there for the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that — and the one after that!
40 Days for Life is run by a man named Shawn Carney who also runs the local Coalition for Life which, yep, Ms. Johnson has now aligned herself (her television interview is done with Mr. Carney by her side). In fact, the 40 Days for Life folks are so thrilled by Ms. Johnson’s “sudden spiritual conversion” that the blogger on the site practically explodes with this news,
I’ve known about this for the past few weeks, but now I can finally share the HUGE NEWS!
This might yet raise another eyebrow (if I had more than two). It seems Ms. Johnson’s conversion wasn’t so sudden, huh? I’d love to know how these events went down. Ms. Johnson sees an abortion on an ultrasound for the first time, goes home and realizes—oh my god, I’ve worked at an abortion clinic for years, I’ve advocated strongly for reproductive rights, supported women’s health issues—but now I need to call the leader of 40 Days for Life to tell them about this? And have them keep it secret for weeks?
Why? Why would she have the leader of 40 Days for Life keep this secret for weeks before the great reveal?
Though I cannot answer that, the restraining order Planned Parenthood of Texas has issued against Abby Johnson and Coalition for Life may make more sense now.
From a statement released on Friday, October 30 from Planned Parenthood of Southeast Houston and Texas officials:
Today, through our attorneys, we requested and Judge X of the District Court of Brazos County issued a Temporary Restraining Order against the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life and former employee Abby Brannam Johnson. We regret being forced to turn to the courts to protect the safety and confidentiality of our clients and staff, however, in this instance it is absolutely necessary.
At the time of the writing of this post, Planned Parenthood has not released any further information about why the restraining order is needed but, according to Planned Parenthood officials in Texas, they are working on a statement currently.
What might be the most shocking juxtaposition, however, is this interview that aired on September 20, 2009, just weeks ago on KEOS, a small college radio station.
During the interview, Ms. Johnson not only makes clear that her Planned Parenthood center’s abortion services make up only 3 percent of their services, which, according to Diane Quest, national media director for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is about on par with the national numbers—”Planned Parenthood’s focus is on prevention. Nationwide,
more than 90 percent of the health care Planned Parenthood affiliates provide is preventive in nature, including wellness exams, breast and cervical cancer screenings, contraception, and STD testing and treatment.” She also says that the “entirely separate” 501(c)3 (nonprofit) corporation that funds their abortion services received a $30 million grant from a private anonymous donor recently to keep their abortion services running.
From the interview:
Interviewer: What percentage of your services are abortion?
Johnson: About 3 percent.
Interviewer: So, it’s not really much.
Interviewer: So when people label you an abortion facility are they being truthful when they are saying that?
Johnson: Well not unless you think 3 percent is an overwhelming amount I guess, but no, we don’t think so. We think 3% is a very small amount and our—I guess our goal has always been that every pregnancy is intended and wanted and um, when we see a dip in abortion numbers we consider that a success.
When the interviewer asks her specifically about funding for PP’s programs, here’s what Abby Johnson says,
PP is a Medicaid provider. First off, PP is divided up into separate corporations. So, there is a Planned Parenthood 501c3 non profit that is a family planning corporation. Also, there is a PP surgical services corporation that is our abortion and vasectomy services. They are totally separate corporations. The surgical services corporation, regardless of what you might hear, receives no government funding—all private donations. And then almost two years ago we received about 30 million dollars in an anonymous donation from a foundation to help women receive abortion services where money was a barrier.
That sort of runs roughshod over her allegations made in the television interview that some unnamed higher-up at Planned Parenthood encouraged her to increase abortions for financial reasons, doesn’t it?
But what’s more fascinating is the myriad ways (and keep in mind this interview was done, seemingly, around the same exact time in which she has apparently had a conversion and is keeping it a secret from all except 40 Days for Life) in which she passionately discusses her deeply held belief that women need access to abortion services for their well-being and health:
Interviewer: Why did you become involved in reproductive health care?
Johnson: It’s important to me because i think it’s a human rights issue. I had talked with some physicians who performed abortions pre-Roe v. Wade and listened to them talk about their horror stories of women who had to have illegal abortions and the way they would perform them and how they would have to watch women die from illegal procedures and that really hit home for me as a woman and as a mother. I don’t ever want to go back to the days where women have to take their own lives in their hands because of an unintended or unwanted pregnancy. So, it was very personal for me.
Where did Ms. Johnson’s concerns for women’s health and lives, her plea for things never to “go back to the days where women have to take their own lives in their hands because of an unintended … pregnancy” go? Where do these fears live now, Ms. Johnson?
Perhaps the most damning and confusing parts of the interview, however, are related to the lengthy conversation about 40 Days for Life, Coalition for Life, their protests, and anti-choice violence as of late.
When the interviewer asks her about all of the protests that her center has had to endure as well as the overall effect of anti-choice campaigning against them, including a claim by Coalition for Life that her PP had failed a health inspection, Ms. Johnson responds by calling the Coalition for Life liars, essentially, and denigrates them,
The Coalition (for Life) made claims that we didn’t sterilize instruments—that was absolutely not true. The only thing that had anything to do with patient care—right now we’re on electronic records but back in 2006 we still had charts. The Texas Department of Health wanted to take a significant number of charts outside the clinic and we didn’t allow it and they wrote it up as a deficiency. They said because they are the state they can take out whatever records they want and we argued that we promise our patients we won’t allow their records to be removed and we stuck to that. We got written up for protecting patient confidentiality. And when the Coalition found that report they thought they had hit a gold mine but they took what was on there, misconstrued it and made it look like we had failed it.
And when the interviewer specifically asks about the protests 40 Days for Life organizes (you know the one that occurred immediately before Ms. Johnson experienced her “spiritual conversion”), Ms. Johnson makes no bones about her frustration:
It is a protest where they stand outside of our facility for 12 hours a day, during business hours. We call it 40 days of harassment. They stand outside and harass our patients.
Ms. Johnson goes onto explain how the coalition offers inaccurate information and harasses women who are coming in for Pap smears, breast exams, or birth control and try to convince them to go to providers who are either extremely expensive or don’t provide the services these women are seeking.
Johnson: So it’s confusing to our patients and we actually have had some patients that have talked to members of the Coalition protesting and have been convinced and every single time they come back to us. So, the information they are giving is inaccurate.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about Ms. Johnson’s claims that she is now “pure of heart” is her decision to sweep the violence and harassment she and her own family—including her daughter and her husband—as well as her former employees have been experiencing at the hands of the very same folks she is now choosing to align herself with in the name of religion and purity:
Interviewer: Have you ever been targeted? I’ve seen how aggressive these protestors can be.
Johnson: Sure. Back about a year and a half ago, I was receiving death threats that were targeted at me and my husband and my daughter. The rest of the staff—they received harassing things in the mail. Things that will go to them and the rest of the neighborhood announcing that they are an abortionist. And all these gruesome things that they do not participate in. Things they put out there for shock value. And send out to neighborhood. They—some of our staff members have had pickets at their homes. You wake up in morning, have coffee and there are people protesting outside at their home. Some of us have been followed different places in our cars. We go to the mall and we notice there are people following us. It’s very serious. This group of people that claim to be “peaceful prayer warriors” or whatever they call themselves. It’s kind of ironic that some of them would be sending death threats and that they would be harassing and stalking some of our staff.
Somehow in the span of a few weeks (a few days? An hour? A moment?), Ms. Johnson’s fear of those who rely on violence and intimidation has simply dissipated.
When the conversation turns to Dr. Tiller’s murder in May 2009, Abby Johnson makes it clear that her belief is that Scott Roeder, the accused killer, had clear ties to the anti-choice community; the same community she is now intimately a part of:
Interviewer: Did Scott Roeder, the accused killer of Dr. Tiller, make any death threats?
Johnson: I’m not sure about death threats.
Interviewer: He was active in the community,
Johnson: He was active in the anti-choice community, active with Operation Rescue. He did make some covert threats which are some of the things that we receive. But it [the threats] doesn’t seem menacing until something like that happens. And then you think, ‘Oh maybe we do need to be a little more cautious, a little more worried. I think it really hits home for our families and you know. I remember the day we found out George [Dr. Tiller] had been murdered, my husband was like, please don’t leave the house.’ Because it’s very real. The risk is very real. … Now we’ve seen increasing numbers of clinic violence and vandalism and hate mail. We receive hate mail at the clinic all the time. Religious sorts of mailings that come to us—fire and brimestone—that comes to us all the time.
Does something feel absolutely wrong here? How is is that Ms. Johnson can now turn to those whom she’s feared, been the target of just weeks prior and now stand side-by-side? And, according to Ms. Johnson, just days before her religious awakening, none of what 40 Days for Life or the Coalition for Life does makes any difference whatsoever. So, what exactly does she think she’s doing? Is it religious fervor that has overtaken her, causing her to take leave of her senses such that she is willing to either forget that these anti-choice advocates have harassed her very own family and staff or to just simply not care?
Interviewer: We talked about 40 days for life earlier and the protest in front of the clinic and we should note they stay out there for 24 hours a day supposedly. And they have a new building basically right next door, down the street from you all (Planned Parenthood). How do you think that is going to affect you all? Now it’s going to be easier for them to do this sidewalk counseling, is what they have said.
Johnson: I think they think it’s going to be fantastic. I don’t think it’s going to make any difference at all. I think that when people come to PP they know they are coming to a trusted health care provider and then they have these people standing out there on sidewalk screaming at them. Patients are confused, thinking why are people screaming at me from the sidewalk? They just don’t understand. They just want to come in, go to their appointment, get taken care of and leave. I think their belief is that they are going to talk to all these people who are pregnant and are “abortion minded,” walk them over to their little house (we call it the guilt house) and change their mind. We haven’t seen it happen once. Um, our patients, generally are annoyed that someone is out there trying to change their mind on what they should or shouldn’t be doing—give them grief on their choices and now they are providing pregnancy tests over there. They aren’t a medical facility so they can’t get medical grade pregnancy tests—so basically dollar store pregnancy tests. So, the majority of our business is not pregnancy tests so I’m not sure what kind of business they think they’d be taking from us. They’ve been down the road from us for ten years and our numbers continue to increase every year so I’m not sure what they think they’re going to do.
She clearly states that none of what Coalition for Life or 40 Days for Life does helps women in any shape or form.
Ah, but the final dig, as the interview wraps, is reserved for Fox News. Yes, the very network on which Ms. Johnson will appear this Friday. The station on which Abby Johnson was interviewed was running a pledge drive when the interview was being conducted, and so Ms. Johnson is asked why people should donate to KEOS.
Johnson: People should donate. Because if you believe in getting accurate information and not information from FOX News, then you should donate…
Abby Johnson may have honestly experienced what feels to her like a thunderous religious conviction, rattling her to the bones. But from this interview, conducted possibly days before, there are far too many holes in this story to let it be. Clinic staff workers at this Planned Parenthood likely feel no more safe today, no more protected from the death threats, no less harassed by those who Johnson herself claims do nothing to help the women of their community but with whom she has now aligned herself, though are probably much more firm in their own conviction that providing health-care services to women who need them is an honorable, noble and necessary cause.