The most talked-about scene in Unplanned is also the goriest. It depicts the moment in the fall of 2009 when Johnson, then the young director of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, witnessed an abortion on an ultrasound monitor for the first time and was so utterly horrified that she was moved not only to quit but to join the anti-abortion movement. Take that “road to Damascus” moment away, and you not only don’t have a Christian film, you have no Abby Johnson; it’s the moment that defines her as a conservative Christian celebrity. Which perhaps explains why she devoted the majority of her recent Federalist article to refuting Planned Parenthood’s assertion, first reported by Texas Monthly ten years ago, that the Bryan clinic has no record of the procedure Johnson described in her memorable account.
Johnson has said in countless interviews and in her memoir that she observed a thirteen-week fetus being pulled to pieces on an ultrasound monitor, something that, as an administrator rather than a medical professional, she had never seen before. But the clinic gave Texas Monthly records for the date in question that undermine her account. First, the records don’t list any patient beyond ten weeks’ gestation. Further, they reflect that the only African American patient—as Johnson has described the woman whose procedure she observed—was just six weeks pregnant, meaning there would have been no fetus to see on the ultrasound, only an embryo, and no medical need for an ultrasound to be used in the first place.
Prior to my request, Planned Parenthood officials had never attempted to determine whether or not Johnson actually saw what she said she saw that day; surgical abortions are, after all, common procedures at an abortion clinic, and there was nothing unusual about what she described. In fact, Johnson may well have been present at some point for an ultrasound-guided abortion, but it didn’t happen on the day in question, according to the clinic’s records. Johnson has never argued that she simply got the date wrong. The clinic performed surgical abortions only every other week, and no other date fits well into the timeline of Johnson’s conversion as she has described it. Instead Johnson has suggested, in her Federalist article and elsewhere, a more outlandish scenario: that the patient information I obtained might have been falsified because it came from Planned Parenthood’s records, not those maintained by the Department of State Health Services, to whom the data is regularly submitted. “This isn’t a trustworthy organization,” she wrote.
Johnson is correct that the State of Texas doesn’t generally share such reports with the public, though not—as she suggests—because of any patient privacy provisions found in state law. In fact, the section of the code Johnson mentions in The Federalist specifically exempts reports that don’t identify patients or doctors—such as the Induced Abortion Reporting Form—from confidentiality requirements found elsewhere in the Texas Health and Safety Code. The law leaves disclosure up to the discretion of the Department of State Health Services, which declined to provide the records to Texas Monthly back in 2009, apparently as a matter of policy.
Johnson also questions the veracity of the data because the document the clinic gave me didn’t resemble the form provided by state regulators. But the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, which closed in 2013, didn’t use the paper form Johnson linked to in her Federalist piece. Like many providers, the Bryan clinic submitted the information to the state electronically. The document I showed Johnson in 2009, which she describes as “something akin to a bad Excel spreadsheet,” was a summary of the information submitted for the date in question pulled from the clinic’s database.
It’s not surprising that Johnson didn’t know how her clinic handled its reporting obligations. She now claims that filling out the Induced Abortion Reporting Form was part of her job, which is why she is so familiar with it. But when I interviewed her in 2009, she said she had never heard of the form and suggested it was someone else’s duty to compile this type of data. Here’s the audio from that interview. She says she’s never heard of the form at ~5:15:
As it happens, the discrepancy between Johnson’s account and Planned Parenthood’s records is just one of many problems with her story. Johnson describes my piece as the “sole source for every other abortion-supporting website to try and debunk my story.” This is flattering but far from true. My report followed on the heels of an account from the online magazine Salon, which was the first to report on an alternative reason Johnson may have quit her job: She had been disciplined by her boss shortly before she had her alleged conversion experience. Johnson, who was in her late twenties when she became clinic director, had been placed on a “performance improvement plan,” a fact she did not deny when I interviewed her not long after the Salon report came out. Johnson claimed she had fallen out of favor because she was resisting pressure to increase the number of abortions the clinic performed (a claim Planned Parenthood denies) and that she was never afraid she was going to be fired. But Salon discovered another curious fact. Johnson did not show up at the offices of the local anti-abortion organization, led by an activist named Shawn Carney, until nine days after she says she had her crisis of conscience. Oddly, she gave a local radio interview attacking Carney’s organization the day after she says she witnessed the disturbing ultrasound. (Johnson told me back in 2009 that she was still struggling with how to handle her crisis of conscience and wanted to keep up appearances.)
Then there was the Texas Observer story, which came out shortly after mine. Observer reporter Saul Elbein managed to land an interview with Johnson’s close friend Laura Kaminczak, who had remained tight with Johnson since college and who had been an assistant director at another Planned Parenthood clinic. The interview is more devastating to Johnson’s credibility than any set of records could ever be. Kaminczak knew all about Johnson’s troubles at work because she had the same troubles herself. She told the Observer that an email exchange between the two friends—one that discussed their respective coworkers in a highly inappropriate fashion—was discovered by one of Kaminczak’s subordinates, who took it up the chain of command. Kaminczak was fired, and Johnson was required to begin reporting to her own boss on a weekly basis.
According to Kaminczak, Johnson was upset, and she lashed out in a way calculated to cause the most harm she possibly could. “This whole thing is really just about a disgruntled employee,” Kaminczak told the Observer. “That’s all. It’s all just her way of getting back at [her boss].” Kaminczak said that Johnson did in fact mention seeing an abortion performed on an ultrasound not long before she quit but that she wasn’t at all upset about it. In fact, Johnson said the clinic’s increased use of ultrasound was likely to result in more effective procedures that were easier on the patient. There was certainly no description, replete with gruesome details, like the one she would later give. That story, Kaminczak said, was “bullshit.”
Johnson’s decision to join the Coalition for Life, the same anti-abortion group that had picketed her clinic for years, was “completely opportunistic,” Kaminczak told the Observer.
“She called me two weeks before this whole thing broke,” Kaminczak said, “and she told me she was thinking about going to the coalition. She had been having serious money problems—she’d been talking about bankruptcy—and she told me that Shawn [Carney] had promised her $3,000 speaking gigs if she came over.”
When Elbein questioned Johnson about Kaminczak’s account, she didn’t deny that the email exchange had occurred, but she insisted that it was not why she had been disciplined, and she denied having told her friend that she was considering declaring bankruptcy.
Johnson did go public with her story and was booked on Bill O’Reilly’s show shortly thereafter. From there the story of the converted clinic director began snowballing and never stopped—despite the investigative reporting done by myself and others.
Much as she did with Texas Monthly, Johnson has dismissed the Texas Observer, which has a long history of award-winning reporting, as a “liberal publication.” (Full disclosure: I worked there sixteen years ago.) But Elbein’s reporting speaks for itself. Kaminczak, who had, after all, just been fired by Planned Parenthood, had no incentive to come to her former employer’s defense. Nor did she have anything to gain by talking to the Observer; sometimes people just tell the truth because it is in their nature to do so.
And sometimes it is not. If you don’t want to believe Johnson’s close friend, how about Johnson herself? As I reported in my original story, Johnson’s own contemporaneous account on Facebook of her decision to leave the clinic does not line up well with the story she began telling publicly a month later. 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 never mentioned being pressured to increase abortions, witnessing the ultrasound-guided procedure, or suffering a moral crisis.
I confronted Johnson with these posts in the winter of 2009 in an interview at the offices of the Coalition for Life, which was just down the street from the clinic. Johnson sat on a couch with a cushion in her lap, not far from where she had sat when she told her conversion story for the very first time, to her erstwhile adversary Shawn Carney. He was perched nearby as I questioned Johnson, nodding supportively. Johnson told me, in essence, that the Facebook account was a cover story she cooked up until she could figure out what she really wanted to say.
One of Johnson’s conflicting explanations for why she left has to be false. How are we supposed to judge whether or not Johnson is telling the truth now? Well, in addition to the discrepancies outlined above, she also told me that abortions were performed by a for-profit company at Planned Parenthood (they are not), that local anti-abortion activists had never threatened physical violence (they had), and that she never made plans to go public with her story (she did).
And, of course, there are the records of the procedures performed—or not performed—on that fateful day in Bryan. Johnson seems to feel the version held by the Department of State Health Services—the ones the agency has refused to share with reporters—will vindicate her account. Unless the department changes its current policy, we may never know. But a person could be forgiven for asking if the release of the records would really change anything. If you view Abby Johnson’s story as an inspiring parable of redemption, there’s likely very little that would change your mind. Likewise, if you don’t think the government—or anyone else—should be telling women not to have abortions, are you really going to go see this movie?
The Abby Johnson story is a rabbit hole. I, for one, am climbing out. Enjoy the film.