Life Choices



Article Published: Sep. 16, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Life Choices

Abby Johnson will speak at Thursday's Hope Fundraiser at the Broyhill Inn & Conference Center.

Photo submitted



Abby Johnson.

Talk to her nine years ago, and you'd be talking to a different Abby Johnson.

With carefully cropped hair and bright eyes that smile through her photos, this Johnson looks exactly like the Johnson from nine years ago. Both called themselves a Christian, a wife and a mother.

The difference? The 2010 Johnson adds another title to that list: Activist.

Johnson, now a nationally recognized pro-life speaker in the abortion debate, started her career at Planned Parenthood (PP) and never thought she'd leave.

"I believed I was helping women," she said. "I was going to be helping empower women, helping them choose the best course for their lives."

For eight years, she worked at PP, doing that, or so she thought.

"I believed I was helping these women in crisis and really had a heart for this movement," she said.

Johnson, who had an abortion herself, even told her parents PP was where God wanted her to be.
"I really believed that," she said. "I was so certain that I was doing the right thing by volunteering with them [Planned Parenthood]."

Soon, her volunteer work turned into a paid full-time position.

It was then that her outlook gradually started to change.

"I kept hearing at our meetings the same kind of phrase, 'nonprofit is a tax status, not a business status,' and we're not going to give out free services any more. That really bothered me."

Day after day she couldn't escape the increasing feeling that something was terribly wrong, but it wasn't until September that her eyes "opened."

"Ultimately ... I saw an ultrasound abortion procedure," she said.

Johnson said the image of a 13-week-old fetus will stick with her forever.

"I saw it struggle to survive during an abortion and ultimately lose that battle," she said. "Eight years, I had been in the abortion industry, and I just saw it had been a lie. I had been educating a lie."

And still, she stayed at Planned Parenthood.

"We're a two-income household," she said. "We have a daughter ... I started looking for another job that week ... but I couldn't afford to just leave."

After a week, she found herself watching women leaving the clinic with bags containing abortion pills.

"I started thinking, I'm still here," she said. "My hand is still in this."

She saw women outside, protesting for the 40 Days for Life Campaign and knew what she had to do.

"I got in my car ... I drove over there ... and walked into their back door," she said.
That was in October 2009.

From there, her life became a whirlwind. While she initially got another job at a doctor's office,
PP, Johnson said, did not want to let her go that easily.

"They sent out a press release to the media, and the media got a hold of that, and it went national within 24 hours," she said.

That's when the press started to call and she was forced to speak out.

"If they hadn't sent that, I'd be minding my own business at an OB/GYN clinic," she said.
Instead, she travels around the country, speaking against the company that used to sign her paychecks.

While she's lost contact with her old cohorts at PP, she's formed a new circle of friends, a new life and, in a sense, a new identity on the other side of the movement, and harbors no ill will toward her old life.

"I think people would really be surprised to know how many commonalities there are from the pro-choice and pro-life movements," she said. "Our goals are almost the same. We both want to help these women in crisis ... we see the women and her child and we see them as a package deal, and (others) only see the needs of the women ... They're good people. They kind of get manipulated into this package of lies."

It's a "package of lies" Johnson fell for, in particular the idea that if abortion becomes illegal women would choose illegal abortion and "women would be dying by the thousands."

"For a person that believes in women, for a person who certainly cares about women, that was very concerning to me," she said.

But, since her PP days, she's been able to rework that talking point.

"The bottom line is ... people will have illegal abortions," she said. "You can't deny that. We have to be honest about ourselves with that ... that's just the facts ... but that doesn't mean that we should keep it legal just because of that. There are many, many things people choose to do in our society that are illegal and harm other people."

Drinking and driving and drug use are just a few of her examples.

"People make bad decisions, make illegal decisions every day in this country, but just because they make those decisions does not mean that we should make that legal," she said. "We have to get real with ourselves about that. If it's a bad decision, we should not make it legal, and abortion is a bad decision."

Another talking point she rejects? The idea that an abortion is a "simple procedure."

"Women are being permanently injured," she said. "Women are dying every year in abortions ... and there is a person that dies during every abortion, and we are not considering that person at all."

And, in cases or rape or incest, she holds to her beliefs.

"That's basically like picking and choosing whose life is important and whose life is not," she said. "It's terrible ... but the bottom line is if a child is conceived out of that, it's still a child. It doesn't mean that the child is any less valuable."

As a licensed therapist, Johnson can counter the claim that giving birth under those circumstances can be irreparably traumatic.

"Women who choose to parent or choose to place their child with adoptions ... they have a healthier healing process than those who choose to abort," she said. "Because when you abort a child who was conceived in rape, it actually causes another wound. They have the wound of being sexually assaulted and then they have the wound of taking the life of their own child. They think that it's going to make the sexual assault go away, but it actually just opens up a new wound... It's difficult to imagine going through nine months of that, but in the end there is a child, and the child is a blessing."

While Johnson is a Christian, she rejects the idea that pro-life beliefs are about religion.

"Abortion doesn't make sense even if you keep religion out of it," she said. "It's just not a logical debate. If you believe in life from conception to natural death, any disconnect in that continuum doesn't make sense ... So many people want to box up the pro-life movement and put us all as religious zealots ... but we're not all that way."

She remembers years ago, telling her mother it was "God's will" that she worked at PP, and her mother's adverse reaction.

Recently, her mother changed her mind.

"'If you hadn't have been there,' she said, 'now you wouldn't have been here, and you wouldn't be able to be this advocate for change and this advocate for life.'"

It's a conversation that makes Johnson smile. "You can see how God blesses our mistakes," she said.

Johnson encourages activists to stand silent vigil outside clinics and pray instead of directly harassing those in the pro-choice movement. "How can we throw stones at them?" she asked.

Johnson will be in Boone Thursday, speaking at the 20 Years of Hope Fundraising Banquet, sponsored by the Hope Pregnancy Resource Center in Boone. It happens at the Broyhill Inn and Conference Center (775 Bodenheimer Drive) Sept. 16 from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.abbyjohnson.org or http://www.friendsofchoosehope.org.

Calls to both the Planned Parenthood in Raleigh and Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina had not been returned, but The Mountain Times was able to speak with Appalachian State University professor and National Organization for Women activist Dr. Eva Hyatt about local pro-choice reaction to the banquet.

Hyatt used to chair the National Organization for Women (NOW) on campus, used to, that is, because NOW no longer has a presence.

"There just weren't enough people," she said.

The local NOW chapter, while active, doesn't have as many members as it used to. NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) also had an organization on campus. Not any more.

"I think a lot of college women think, 'We've got all our rights now,'" she said. "They don't realize there's still a lot to be done. I think if it hit you personally, if you found yourself pregnant, then it would become very important."

And, while community demonstrations aren't the norm since college students lessened their involvement ("It's just a small number of people who have been active for years," Hyatt said.) the local chapter is still active, participating in conferences like the NOW state conference coming up in Fayetteville.

"Watauga County is actually quite progressive," Hyatt said.

While NOW deals with several issues like equal pay and lesbian rights, its key issue, Hyatt said, deals with reproductive rights.

"If a woman doesn't have the control over her own body, she doesn't have any rights," she said. "It is the central issue in the women's movement, even if you've never been pregnant, even if you've never had sex with men. It's still an issue that's relevant to all women."

According to Hyatt, getting an abortion isn't as easy as many pro-life activists fear.

"The nearest place is about two hours away," she said. "A lot of people don't realize that in the U.S. you can only get an abortion in about 10 percent of the counties. There was a time when there were a dozen places in Boone where you could get an abortion. They've made it harder and harder to get an abortion by limiting the number of places that actually provide it, and one of the ways they've done that is by blockading and harassing clinics."

And it's not just about peaceful blockades.

"A lot of people also don't realize that every abortion clinic in the state of North Carolina has been bombed ... there's this terrorist movement against women's centers," she said.

Add in the cost ("They're close to $800," she said.) and it's not an option for some of the women who Hyatt said need the procedure the most.

"Even though Roe v. Wade has not been overturned, it effectively has become really difficult to get an abortion," Hyatt said.

If it were illegal, the number might go up.

"There's way more abortions performed in countries where it's illegal," she said.

And, despite what the opposite side of the issue might say, Hyatt added, abortions are simple "vacuum" procedures.

"They're very low-risk and simple procedures ... 99 percent of them are no problem afterwards," she said. "They've been using this technique since it's been legal, and it's really safe."

And, according to Hyatt, witnessing a 13-week abortion wouldn't be as traumatic as you'd think.

"At 13-weeks, you're talking about something that's about the size of a pea," she said.

Abortions, she said, are not performed as often as you think.

"The more women's clinics you have and family planning centers, the less need there is for abortions, because people have access to birth control better, and they're able to control the situation a lot better," she said.

As for crisis pregnancy centers?

"The crisis pregnancy centers are tied to religious organizations," Hyatt said. "Their funds are raised by religious organizations."

And, to Hyatt, it shouldn't be a religious issue.

Hyatt rejects the term "pro-life," instead choosing to call it "anti-choice." After all, she said, pro-choice activists are not pro-abortion.

"You're dealing with somebody who doesn't want to do this anyway," she said. "It's not like somebody's saying, 'Ooh, ooh, I want an abortion ... There's so many situations where the woman does not have control over the sex act ... especially with younger girls, and they end up with an unwanted pregnancy ... if you want to have children it needs to be when you want to do it, when you can afford to do it."

And, during her NOW tenure, she's heard all the arguments.

"You have these ... so called pro-life ... people saying, 'If my mom had an abortion, I wouldn't be here.' It's those kind of arguments that are really meaningless, because each situation is different."

Hyatt, involved in NOW since the '70s, has a simple response. "If you don't want an abortion, don't get one," she said.

While Hyatt and the rest of her NOW cohorts may not be demonstrating outside the banquet this time, they promise that doesn't mean complacency. For more information on NOW, visit http://www.now.org.

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