SALT LAKE CITY — With Alabama’s new law that prohibits most abortions, and other states passing restrictive "heartbeat" bills, abortion opponents are hoping a conservative Supreme Court will soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the historic ruling that made abortion legal nationwide in 1973.
At the forefront of the anti-abortion movement is a woman who wasn’t even alive when Roe v. Wade first came before the court.
Abby Johnson is a 38-year-old mother of seven (soon to be eight) and a former Planned Parenthood clinic director whose 2011 book "Unplanned" became the subject of a recent feature film by the same name. She also runs a ministry that assists abortion workers in finding new jobs.
The film, which chronicles Johnson's journey from a celebrated director of an abortion clinic to an ardent opponent of abortion, exceeded expectations at the box office this spring, earning nearly $18 million, three times what it cost to make.
Along the way, it solidified Johnson's status as a celebrity in the anti-abortion movement.
In Times Square earlier this month, a crowd cheered as images from a 4-D ultrasound of Johnson's eighth child — due June 1 — were broadcast on a large screen and then fell silent when the child's heartbeat was broadcast. A headline on the conservative website Townhall.com later described the rally as "the day abortion died."
The Deseret News spoke recently with Johnson, a Catholic who lives in Austin, Texas, about that rally, the surprising rating for "Unplanned" and why a fetal heartbeat means so much to abortion opponents. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
DN: In the author’s note in your book, you talk — in ways that might surprise people who only know you from headlines — about polarization being a problem in America and how people on opposite sides of the abortion debate sometimes demonize each other. You write that there is “good and right and wrong on both sides of the fence,” and you ask a probing question: “Are you ready to look through the fence and see goodness, compassion, generosity, and self-sacrifice on the other side?”
Have Americans become more or less polarized on the issue since you wrote these words?
AJ: I actually have seen a lot of growth in the pro-life movement over the past 10 years. I’m not saying that this is because of me, but I think it’s been interesting for people to see someone who worked inside an abortion clinic, who ran an abortion clinic, to see them come out of that environment and to see them as a normal person. I didn’t come out with horns and a tail and a pitchfork. I was a very normal person who had a family, I was married, I had one daughter at that time. And I think that was surprising, because for many years, the pro-life movement did a really good job of dehumanizing the individuals who worked inside of these clinics.
And so one of my primary goals has been to bring some humanity back into the lives of those who are involved in abortion, including abortion-clinic workers, but also women who are having abortions.
I didn't want to continue to tread in this pit where we do to the abortion worker what we accuse them of doing to the unborn, and that's dehumanization.
DN: You use the term “abortionist” in the book, instead of saying physician or doctor. That term seems like a pejorative, and since you’re talking about the need to be more compassionate to each other, it seems like the opposite of what your overall goal is. Why do you use that term?
AJ: The majority of the physicians that I worked with only performed abortions, and that’s actually what they called themselves. I find it odd that people see that as inflammatory because that’s what abortion doctors, those who perform abortions full-time, that's generally what they call themselves, just like a hospitalist or an orthopedist. It’s not inflammatory to them at all.
DN: The “Unplanned” movie made more money that it cost to make on its opening weekend. What's your reaction to the response?
Abby Johnson: You never know how a film like this is going to do, whether it’s going to take off or be a big flop. You don’t know if people are going to want to go watch a film like this, if it’s going to be too intense. So we’re very pleased with these numbers. And the stories that we’ve been hearing about people who walked into the film pro-choice and walked out pro-life are really exciting.
DN: The film was rated R because of its graphic simulation of abortion. Were you surprised or disappointed by that?
AJ: I was honestly a little surprised by it, because I watch cable television, I have seen PG-13 films, and even on cable television, there is much more graphic content in the shows we see every day on television. It’s almost like they (the Motion Picture Association of America) stumbled backwards into the truth by admitting that abortion is violent, that it is disturbing, and we agree that it is.
I do think that it was definitely agenda-driven to keep people out of the theater who would be influenced by the film, particularly young people. I don’t think the irony was lost on anyone that (in some states) a 15-year-old girl can go get an abortion without her parents’ consent but cannot see a film about abortion without her parents’ consent.
DN: You recently called out Pennsylvania legislator Brian Sims for his treatment of a woman praying outside a Planned Parenthood clinic. What are the worst behaviors that you have seen on both sides of the abortion debate, and what do you believe is the proper, respectful way to protest?
AJ: Here in Austin, some of our sidewalk advocates had a Molotov cocktail thrown at them. We have seen physical altercations take place, where sidewalk advocates have been standing peacefully praying and someone walks up to them and starts physically assaulting them. We saw a man in his 80s be physically assaulted by a younger pro-choice man about a month ago. Those sorts of things happen often to those who go out in front of clinics, and I think it’s because there is such a wound in our society. We now have over 60 million abortions recorded, and that means millions and millions of women and men have been affected by abortion. There’s a lot of hurt in our society today, and a lot of times that hurt comes out as anger.
Certainly there are people out there on the sidewalk trying to promote life, but they're actually creating further division. You know, people that hold the big bloody signs of aborted babies, those who yell out calling them murders and babykillers. That certainly doesn't do anything to help a woman in a crisis situation.
I don’t think when we’re out in front of abortion clinics that we should be protesting. If we are going out to protest, we are going out with the wrong spirit. Our spirit should be to offer help and resources, and to show women more about what we are for than what we are against. To show them that there are options outside of abortion, and to let them know that they have people who are willing to accompany them on the journey they are traveling.
DN: Have you worked full time anywhere since you resigned from Planned Parenthood, or do you do advocacy work full time? If the latter, how do you and your husband (a former special-education teacher, now stay-at-home dad) pay the electric bill?
AJ: I’ve been doing full-time advocacy since I left. I primarily get paid from fundraising speaking events.
DN: A Texas magazine has published two articles alleging that you are basically a disgruntled employee who did not see what you claim you saw (a 13-week-old fetus trying to get away from a suction tube during an abortion) at the clinic. You told your side in an essay in The Federalist, but for people who haven't read that, why should they believe you over what the magazine has charged?
AJ: Well, they certainly don't have to; that's their decision, whether they want to believe me or believe Planned Parenthood. I will say that Planned Parenthood is not known for being trustworthy or honest in the media. For example, they said they provide mammograms. That was not true, and we were able to refute that. (Planned Parenthood provides referrals for mammograms.)
There has been nothing since leaving Planned Parenthood that I have not been able to provide evidence for, except for this abortion that I witnessed.
DN: It's been reported that a hush fell over Times Square when your baby's heartbeat was broadcast at Focus on the Family's "Alive from New York" rally earlier this month. And four states this year have passed "heartbeat laws" that restrict abortion after six weeks, or about the time a fetal heartbeat can be detected. What is it about a baby's heartbeat that resonates with people so much?
AJ: There's something very special about hearing that heartbeat of an unborn child. At prenatal visits I've had with all my children, it's very special to see your child on an ultrasound, but you become quite emotional when you hear that heartbeat. A heartbeat shows us that life is there. It's how we determine death. For many people, hearing that heartbeat is proof of life, even more so than an image. I tell people it's almost like a holy hush came over Times Square that day. There's just something really beautiful about that sound.
DN: Is this child a boy or a girl, and do you have a name yet?
AJ: We don't know if it's a boy or a girl; we're waiting to be surprised.
DN: Given how much you've talked about ending polarization and seeing the humanity of the people who believe differently about abortion, do you have anything good to say about Planned Parenthood? What are they doing that Americans who are against abortion could get behind?
AJ: I can't think of anything.