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.

One of the show’s hosts, Shelly Blair, volunteered regularly at the clinic and considered Johnson to be a friend and mentor. The hardest thing to accept, Blair said later, was not Johnson’s announcement that she was now pro-life but her decision to join the Coalition. Johnson, Blair said, had long complained that the Coalition harassed patients and clinic workers and spread misinformation about Planned Parenthood. Blair recalled a party in the parking lot of Planned Parenthood, held just two weeks before Johnson quit, to boost morale on the opening day of the 40 Days vigil. “Abby was so mad that she was screaming through the fence at them,” she recalled. “It’s just so strange, because now she’s saying all the things that they’ve always said. It’s like, how can you unlearn everything you know?”

Johnson’s departure from Planned Parenthood turned out to be a more complex story than it first appeared. At a court hearing for an injunction sought by Planned Parenthood to prevent Johnson from divulging confidential information to her new allies, two of Johnson’s former co-workers testified that she told them in the days before she resigned that she was afraid she was about to be fired. At one time, Johnson, who was named the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate’s employee of the year in 2008, seemed to have a promising future with the organization. By mid-2009, however, her relationship with her employer had begun to deteriorate. Salon reported that on October 2, Johnson was summoned to Houston to meet with her supervisors to discuss problems with her job performance. She was placed on what Planned Parenthood calls a “performance improvement plan.” It was just three days later, on Monday, that Johnson made her tearful appearance at the Coalition for Life. The following day she faxed Planned Parenthood a resignation letter, which mentioned nothing about a crisis of conscience.

Johnson has said that she was disciplined by her employer because she objected to what she described as pressure to increase the number of abortions performed at the clinic. The number of abortions did increase over the past year, chiefly because the clinic, which performs surgical abortions every other Saturday, began offering the abortion pill to patients on a daily basis. That decision, Planned Parenthood told me, was driven by patient demand, not, as Johnson has claimed, by a desire to increase revenue. Citing company policy regarding confidential personnel information, Planned Parenthood declined to specify why Johnson was disciplined, other than to deny that it was due to any conflict over the number of abortions performed.

Postings on Johnson’s Facebook page, obtained by Texas Monthly, suggest an employee worn out by her job and feeling hurt, angry, and unappreciated—not one struggling with the morality of her profession. On September 24, two weeks before she resigned, she wrote, “So tired. Want a day off. Too busy. Blah.” Similar sentiments followed, along with expressions of dread over her coming disciplinary meeting in Houston. This is what she wrote on the night she quit:

Alright. Here’s the deal. I have been doing the work of two full time people for two years. Then, after I have been working my whole big butt off for them and prioritizing that company over my family, my friends and pretty much everything else in my life, they have the nerve to tell me that my job performance is “slipping.” WHAT???!!! That is crazy. Anyone that knows me knows how committed I was to that job. They obviously do not value me at all. So, I’m out and I feel really great about it!

Johnson received condolences and encouragement from a number of Facebook friends, most of whom were shocked by her announcement. She never mentioned being pressured to increase abortions, having witnessed the ultrasound-guided procedure, or having suffered a moral crisis.

In mid-December I met with Johnson and Carney at the Coalition for Life office, where Johnson spends most days when she is not out of town for a speaking engagement. She has an open face, with big brown eyes and a confident smile. She had cut her hair since the story broke; it was now in a sophisticated bob, and her nails were freshly done in a French manicure. I asked Johnson about the questions that had arisen regarding her motivation for leaving Planned Parenthood. She acknowledged that she had been disciplined just before quitting but said she never worried that she would be fired. “I was employee of the year,” she said. “I had been promised by the higher-ups that one day I would be the COO of the affiliate.” Johnson insisted that the Facebook posting was merely a cover story, designed to buy her time to decide how and when she would reveal her real reasons for quitting. She was not ready to expose herself to attack at that point. Nor did she turn to the Coalition out of revenge, she said. “It’s not about being disgruntled. If I was disgruntled, I would have come over and said, ‘Shawn, let’s really stick it to Planned Parenthood.’ If I was angry about being written up, that’s what I would have done, because I have a ton of stuff that I could have disclosed to the media. But I’ve never done that, because that was never my intention.”

Carney said that none of the apparent discrepancies in Johnson’s story—the curious timing of the Fair and Feminist interview, the coincidence of the disciplinary action and Johnson’s resignation, and the incongruous Facebook posting—bothered him. “Her coming down here can only be explained by a genuine conversion experience,” he said. “Abby could have taken a right and driven off and gone to a fast-food restaurant, cried her eyes out, called her husband, quit the next day, and we’d have never known. But she didn’t do that. She decided to take a left and come into this house.” It was easier for skeptics to believe that Johnson was just a disgruntled employee, Carney said, than that a commonly performed procedure was in reality so awful that the director of an abortion clinic could not abide the sight of it. “I think for some people the reason for her leaving is almost too ugly to look at with honesty,” Carney said.

Other questions about Johnson’s credibility arose during our interview. She told me, for example, that there had never been any threats of violence against the Bryan clinic; however, Johnson herself received a series of threatening letters in 2007. “God will punish you for killing the innocent or we will,” read one. “You are not taking us seriously. You were at the clinic alone. Not very smart,” read another. In fact, the threats were taken so seriously that security cameras were installed at Johnson’s house, as she later acknowledged. Johnson also claimed that while most services at Planned Parenthood were provided by a nonprofit corporation, abortions were done by a for-profit corporation. Both she and Carney seemed to sincerely believe this was true, though all services at Planned Parenthood are, in fact, provided by a pair of separate nonprofit corporations.

As confounding as these inconsistencies are, there may be a much larger problem with Johnson’s story. Johnson has told the story of her journey from pro-choice activist to pro-life celebrity many times in many venues, and the crux of the tale is always the same: her moving description of what she saw on the ultrasound that September day in the Bryan clinic’s operating room. It is an undeniably compelling story. Mike Huckabee interrupted Johnson several times during her appearance on his show, marveling at every detail and embellishing here and there with his own comments. “You literally were holding your hand on top of her belly, at that point, and realized that what was underneath that hand, once, a moment ago, was life...it’s gone,” he said. “My gosh.”

Johnson’s account is so plausible and rich in detail that even Planned Parenthood seems not to have investigated whether this event ever took place. At my request, the staff at the Bryan clinic examined patient records from September 26, the day Johnson claims to have had her conversion experience, and spoke with the physician who performed abortions on that date. According to Planned Parenthood, there is no record of an ultrasound-guided abortion performed on September 26. The physician on duty told the organization that he did not use an ultrasound that day, nor did Johnson assist on any abortion procedure. “Planned Parenthood can assure you that no abortion patients underwent an ultrasound-guided abortion on September 26,” said a spokesperson. It’s difficult to imagine that Johnson simply got the date wrong; September 12 was the only other day that month that the clinic performed surgical abortions.

Could clinic staff and the physician be mistaken? The Texas Department of State Health Services requires abortion providers to fill out a form documenting basic information about each procedure performed at a clinic. This document is known as the Induced Abortion Report Form. The Bryan clinic reported performing fifteen surgical abortions on September 26. Johnson has consistently said that the patient in question was thirteen weeks pregnant, which is plausible, since thirteen weeks is right at the cusp of when physicians will consider using an ultrasound to assist with the procedure. Yet none of the patients listed on the report for that day were thirteen weeks pregnant; in fact, none were beyond ten weeks.

Johnson stands by her version of events. “What I described on the screen is something I’d never seen before, so I wouldn’t know what to describe if I hadn’t seen it,” she said. It seems unlikely, though, that an eight-year veteran of the abortion wars would be unfamiliar with the image of the “recoiling fetus,” which has been common coin among anti-abortion activists since the release of the controversial 1984 film The Silent Scream, which purported to show fetal pain. When I asked if she could provide any other details of what she saw that day to help firm up her story, Johnson volunteered that the patient in question was a black woman, a description that she has never previously included in her account. Only one patient from September 26 was black, according to the Induced Abortion Report Form, and she was in the sixth week of her pregnancy. There would be no medical reason for a doctor to use an ultrasound to guide an abortion performed on a woman at such an early stage. Even if one was used, it’s hard to imagine how Johnson, who said she has seen hundreds of ultrasound pictures in her career, could mistake a one-quarter-inch-long embryo for a three-inch, thirteen-week fetus.

Johnson told me she was unfamiliar with the Induced Abortion Report Form. When I explained what the forms for September 26 reflected, she suggested that Planned Parenthood could have doctored them. “Anything to discredit me is what they’re gonna do,” she said. “You know, I’m not really interested in defending my story anymore. I haven’t done this just for fun. I haven’t done it for my own benefit. So I don’t really care what they’re saying. They’re just trying to grasp at straws and come up with something,” she said. “And it’s just not true.”

If the story of Johnson’s conversion doesn’t bear up well under scrutiny, it may be because it was never meant to. Johnson has consistently said that she never planned to go public with her story. In fact, the media only learned of her defection a month after she quit, when Planned Parenthood took Johnson to court. According to testimony at that hearing, on the day she quit her job Johnson told two young co-workers that the Coalition for Life could find them jobs, just as it had offered to do for her. All they had to do, one of the young women testified, was say they could no longer work at Planned Parenthood because of a “moral conflict.” (Both are still employed at the clinic.) Johnson told me early in our interview that clinic workers sometimes felt trapped. “Where else would you work?” was a refrain she often heard around the Planned Parenthood office. “You’ve done abortions—who else would want you here in this town?”

Johnson, who has a young daughter and a husband who is a schoolteacher, told me her only goal in the weeks after leaving Planned Parenthood was to find a new job as quickly as possible. But she’d suddenly found herself with a camera in her face, telling her story to a much larger audience. “I had no idea I would be on Fox News. This was just totally unexpected,” she said. “Things just really took off in a different direction than what I had thought they would.”

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