The Convert

Former Bryan Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson’s abrupt change from pro-choice activist to pro-life spokesperson turned her into a talk show sensation. But is her story true?
Switching sides: Abby Johnson, photographed on December 9, 2009, in front of the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life office.
Photograph by Randal Ford

At lunchtime on October 5, in the East Texas town of Bryan, a woman walked through the rear door of the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life office, which is one block west of a Planned Parenthood clinic. She was crying. It was the thirteenth day of the Coalition’s annual 40 Days for Life event, in which anti-abortion activists maintain a 24-hour vigil outside the front gate of the clinic, one of the few places in East Texas where a woman can obtain an abortion. The three staffers on duty immediately recognized the woman. It was the clinic’s 29-year-old director, Abby Johnson. “I want out,” she told them. “I don’t want to do this anymore. I know it’s not right.”

Stunned by Johnson’s sudden appearance and concerned about how distraught she seemed, the staffers sat with her, in a room ordinarily used to counsel pregnant women in crisis, until Shawn Carney, the Coalition’s director, arrived. Carney knew Johnson by sight—he had spent a lot of time on the sidewalk in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic—but he had never had a lengthy conversation with her. Carney, who is 27, had begun working at the Coalition as a volunteer, just as Johnson had at Planned Parenthood. Like Johnson, he had quickly been promoted to a position of leadership. Nothing like this had ever happened to him in his short career as an activist, and he could barely contain his excitement.

Johnson told Carney that she had been harboring doubts about her work at the clinic for some time. She felt she was being pressured by her supervisor at the regional affiliate to increase the number of abortions her clinic performed, to make up for declining revenues from the clinic’s family planning and women’s health services. “I could tell her mind was racing,” Carney recalled later. “She was giving a litany of reasons why she wanted out, and it was just almost verbatim of what you think someone who wants to leave the abortion industry would say: Her conscience had gotten to her, the abortion industry is about money, abortion is horrific.”

Then, as Carney sat rapt, Johnson told him about the incident that had forced her to finally listen to her conscience. Nine days earlier, on September 26, she’d assisted a doctor who was performing an abortion for a woman who was thirteen weeks pregnant, she said. The doctor asked Johnson to hold an ultrasound transducer to the woman’s stomach as he performed the operation. Johnson told Carney she had never seen this done before, since ultrasound machines are not commonly used for first-trimester abortions, which make up the vast majority of abortions done at most clinics. What she witnessed on the ultrasound monitor, she said, horrified her. The fetus seemed to be moving away from the doctor’s probe, which was clearly visible on the screen as it entered the patient’s uterus. Johnson thought of all the patients whom she had told that their fetuses wouldn’t feel anything during the procedure. Then, as Johnson watched, the doctor turned on the suction.

Before she left the Coalition offices that day, Johnson offered to volunteer for the group, and Carney, in turn, promised to help Johnson find another job. It was a standing offer that the Coalition extended to all clinic employees, one often shouted to workers as they arrived in the morning or left in the evening. No staffers at the clinic had ever taken the Coalition up on the offer. Carney never dreamed the first would be the person in charge. “I knew immediately that this would be huge,” he said. Johnson quit her job the next day.

Johnson’s story broke at a time when abortion had once again taken center stage in national politics. For months Congress had been locked in debate over the so-called Stupak amendment, the anti-abortion measure that threatened to derail health care reform. Mike Huckabee flew Johnson to New York to tape a segment for his talk show on November 7, and she became an overnight star in the conservative-media world. Bill O’Reilly spoke to her and Carney a few days later, and producers for the Christian talk show The 700 Club traveled to Bryan to interview her. Johnson began receiving dozens of calls a day, mostly from talk radio producers seeking interviews, and she obliged every request she could. Her story went viral in the Christian conservative blogosphere.

Carney’s efforts to find Johnson a new job were unsuccessful, but after her story went nationwide, Johnson didn’t need one. Carney helped her sign on with Ambassador Speakers Bureau, a Christian publicity agency, and the company began booking paid engagements for her. Her job became, in essence, being Abby Johnson. For her first booking, Johnson flew to New York to talk at a fundraiser for the pro-life group Expectant Mother Care. She had done a lot of public speaking for Planned Parenthood over the years, she told me, but had always chafed at the group’s insistence on strict adherence to officially sanctioned talking points. Addressing anti-abortion activists, Johnson quickly found that she enjoyed public speaking much more than she had when she was on the other side. “I was laughing when I was up there giving my talk,” she said, “because I was thinking, you know, when you’re telling the truth, you don’t have to have talking points.”

But was she telling the truth? The rollout of Abby Johnson as a culture-war celebrity got off to a rocky start. In early November, the online magazine Salon reported that on September 27, the day after Johnson says she witnessed the ultrasound-guided abortion and had her epiphany, she appeared as a guest on the Bryan public radio program Fair and Feminist to discuss her work at the clinic. In the hour-long interview, Johnson gives an enthusiastic defense of the clinic and ridicules the 40 Days for Life protest. She doesn’t sound like someone who’d had a life-changing experience the previous day or who had soured on her employer’s mission.

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