Abby Johnson: What She Saw May Have Never Happened

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On 103rd anniversary of Planned Parenthood, our local and utterly useless antiabortion group decided to celebrate with a showing of the antiabortion propaganda film, “Unplanned”, at our local stage theater.

“Unplanned” tells the supposed story of real life antiabortion activist, Abby Johnson. I say “supposed” because her story of how she became an antiabortion activist is as questionable and debatable as putting pineapple on pizza: some people eat it up without question while others are skeptical or speak out against it. (In regards to Abby Johnson and pineapple on pizza, I’m in the latter category.)

Abby Johnson had worked for Planned Parenthood for eight years, starting off as a volunteer in college and rising through the ranks to become the organization’s youngest clinic director with an Employee of the Year award under her belt. On September 26, 2009, as the tagline of the movie based on her memoir of the same name goes, “what she saw changed everything”. Abby claims she was asked to assist with an ultrasound guided abortion procedure on a 13 week old pregnancy. She was so horrified at what she was on the ultrasound monitor that she resigned from Planned Parenthood and joined the Coalition for Life, an antiabortion group that regular harassed the clinic.

“Unplanned” came out at the same time as another movie about a blond woman who realizes she’s been doing the wrong thing for years and defects to the actual good side. The antiabortion movement really does see Abby Johnson as a Captain Marvel standing up to the injustice that she once worked for. Her story of being so horrified by abortion thanks to ultrasound imaging that it caused her to switch from a staunch pro-choice view to an antiabortion one fits in perfectly with the antiabortion narrative that abortion is horrible and women seeking abortions need to see their own ultrasounds. Some reporters at the time her story broke out felt her story fit almost too well into this narrative and started investigating her claims.

First off, was Johnson even qualified to directly assist in an abortion procedure? Johnson may have rose through the ranks of Planned Parenthood, but she still had zero medical training. Texas law states that only doctors can perform abortion, though it is unclear if this would apply to an assistant working the ultrasound wand. In response to Maine allowing medical professionals who are not doctors to perform abortions, Johnson had this to say, “I worked for Planned Parenthood for almost eight years, ascending to the position of director of my clinic. I did several things only doctors should have done but I’m not the only one. The 500-plus abortion workers I’ve helped to get out of the industry have horror stories of things they were made to do that they had zero qualifications for. Many were not trained or participated in limited training for doing jobs that only doctors should have been doing. When money is the bottom line — and it is in the abortion industry — shortcuts are king.” While she doesn’t specifically refer to the abortion she supposedly assisted with, she may be hinting at it and that she wasn’t qualified to assist with the abortion.

Johnson has been consistent that on September 26, 2009 she assisted with an ultrasound guided abortion for a black woman with a 13 week old fetus. While she did not give the patient’s name, she gave enough information about the patient and the procedure that it could be a HIPAA privacy violation.

If Johnson was not qualified to assist with an ultrasound duties of the abortion and she was in violation of HIPAA, why was Johnson never investigated for it? It could be because the abortion never happened. As far as anyone knows, there are no known records of this abortion. One of the first pieces to investigate Johnson’s claims was featured in Texas Monthly. The article states, “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” and “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.”

It doesn’t help Johnson’s credibility that she has flip-flopped like a fish out of water on several things regarding her story. For example:

*On the night she resigned, she posted on Facebook: “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!” When questioned about this and the fact it lacked any sort of moral crisis or epiphany, she insisted it was meant to buy her time to decide how and when to reveal the real reason she left. But hold on…Johnson had maintained she had never planned to go public with the story. “I was never going to go to the media. I just wanted to get out, get a new job, and spend more time with my daughter. But they [Planned Parenthood] forced me to go public.”. And even that contradicts what Shawn Carney, leader of the Bryan Coalition for Life at the time, told the Texas Observer. He said they planned on going to the media in “mid-December, after Abby had some time to settle in”. It seems the plan was to go public all along, but Planned Parenthood ended up slapping her with a restraining order after finding she defected to an antiabortion group that harassed their patients and the media quickly picked up on it before any plans to go to the media could be carried out. Possibly Abby plays coy about not wanting to go public to make herself seem innocent—something to the effect of “Big mean Planned Parenthood took me to court because they thought I would expose them, but I never planned on going public with the truth.”

*When Texas Monthly interviewed her, she stated didn’t know what the Induced Abortion Report Form was and claimed Planned Parenthood must have altered the documents in order to discredit her when shown the records didn’t match her story. Ten years later, she suddenly felt the need to respond to the claims the article made—which may have something to do with the fact a movie based on her memoir had been out in theaters for a little over a week and was reigniting doubts about her conversion story. She explained she knew what the form was because it was her job to file them. Nate Blakeslee, the writer of the original article, wrote a rebuttal article that included audio from the interview he conducted for the original article. In the audio, Abby clearly states “No” when asked if she knows what the Induced Abortion Report Form was. It also clarified that the form Blakeslee had received from Planned Parenthood had been filed to the Department of Health on September 30th, which was before Abby resigned and long before her story became public knowledge. If it was Abby’s job to file that form and assuming that Planned Parenthood didn’t make any alterations, then it was Abby who filed the form and hadn’t included that morally shattering abortion she supposedly witnessed. Why wouldn’t she have included the abortion in those reports? Was she covering her tracks so if someone called her out on it she could claim that Planned Parenthood had altered documents to discredit her? Or did the abortion not happen?

*When interviewed on Fair and Feminist, Johnson stated in response to the question about Planned Parenthood being an “abortion facility”, “Only 3% of our services are abortion. So no, we don’t think so. We think 3 percent is a very small amount, and our—I guess our goal has always been that every pregnancy is intended and wanted and, um, when we see a dip in abortion numbers we consider that a success.” After joining the movement, she calls Planned Parenthood “an abortion mill” and encourages Planned Parenthood workers to leave their jobs. In that same radio interview, she explained the Coalition for Life had harassed, stalked, and sent death threats. As a pro-life activist, she claimed there were never any threats of violence against the clinic and that they never harassed her despite stating earlier the death threats were serious enough that she had security cameras installed. 

Further putting her credibility into question are things that happened before and after the supposed abortion. The day after this life changing moment where Johnson claims to saw the “baby crumple” on the ultrasound monitor, she went on Fair and Feminist to discuss her work at Planned Parenthood, why abortion rights were important, and the protests by the Coalition for Life. While this radio interview is no longer accessible, news articles reported that Johnson passionately explained her work with Planned Parenthood while being awfully critical of the Coalition (calling their “40 Days of Life” the “40 Days of Harassment”). The descriptions of this interview match an earlier and still available interview she had done with the radio show on September 20, 2009. Besides doing a radio interview to promote pro-choice talking points the day after being so horrified by the abortion she assisted with, she also continued to work for Planned Parenthood for 9 days before she showed up on the steps of the Coalition for Life, who had regularly offered to help employees find new employment while begging them to leave Planned Parenthood. Either her spiritual awakening was slow paced and the abortion she witnessed didn’t immediately impact her…or it didn’t actually happen.

Perhaps Johnson went to the Coalition for their promises of employment and not because she wanted out of the abortion industry. Shelly Blair claimed Johnson had been contemplating filing for bankruptcy. Former friend and coworker, Laura Kaminczak, stated that Johnson had been thinking about going to the Coalition and that Carney offered to give her $3,000 for speaking gigs.

Speaking of Kaminczak, Texas Observer landed a huge interview with the former friend and coworker of Johnson. Shortly after Abby’s story came out, Salon.com had reported that she had been placed on a performance improvement plan on October 2nd. Johnson claims it was related to abortions, but Kaminczak tells a different story: the two friends had been exchanging inappropriate emails at work. She also claimed Johnson had told her about the ultrasound guided abortion she witnessed, but that Johnson’s reaction to it was positive as she it was more humane and less painful for women. Abby’s resignation from Planned Parenthood had been completely opportunistic and not the result of a spiritual awakening according to the former friend. Texas Observer would question Johnson about Kaminczak’s statements and, not surprisingly, she blew them off as heresy. However, one of Kaminczak’s claims caused Johnson’s whole demeanor to change and she threatened legal action if that information was published. Abby herself would eventually confirm that statement to be true: Abby Johnson had two abortions. In fact, the Texas Observer article stated Johnson later told the news outlet to publish the information she had two abortions if they want because it will make her look good. “It’ll just make me look even more credible because people will know I’ve been there.”

Johnson not only was confronted with abortion from both the pro-choice and pro-life angles, but also had personal experience with the procedure. It’s hard to understand how someone who went through the abortion procedure twice and worked at a clinic that provided abortion services for eight years while being harassed by an antiabortion group could not know what abortion entailed and what their own feelings on it were. This sentiment was reflected in a blog post by Shelly Blair, “I don’t know how you devote 8 years of your life to something like Planned Parenthood and then up and join the group that you disparaged every day. I don’t know how you move from defending women’s rights to protesting at people’s doctor’s office.”

Some theorize Johnson wasn’t a clinic worker that saw “the reality of abortion”, but actually a disgruntled employee on the verge of bankruptcy that joined the Coalition for Life with their promises of finding those that left the “abortion industry” new employment in order to get back at the organization she felt had wronged her and to solve her financial problems. Then the media propelled her into the limelight and she has enjoyed a life of celebrity as a pro-life darling ever since. Honestly, being beloved and praised by the pro-life movement is probably a much better gig than facing constant death threats for defending reproductive rights. In any case, there’s much more to the Abby Johnson story than Johnson herself or the antiabortion supporters that adore her will ever let on.

Yet, in the end, whether or not this life-changing abortion ever happened doesn’t matter in comparison to what Johnson does as an antiabortion advocate, which is more verifiable than her story about witnessing an ultrasound guided abortion. When she’s not putting Planned Parenthood on blast, stating untruths like birth control causing abortion and the abortion pill being more dangerous than surgical abortion, being transphobic, or endorsing Kanye West, she’s doing speaking gigs. One of those speaking gigs is a training session called “Competing with the Abortion Industry”, where she trains crisis pregnancy center workers on how to run their centers. She has done this session at the 2012, 2015, and 2016 Heartbeat International Conferences. She encourages crisis pregnancy center workers to misrepresent their centers with deceptive and predatory advertising to lure women seeking abortions and reproductive healthcare as well as cutting women off from services when they are past the point of being able to obtain an abortion in most states.

“We want to appear neutral on the outside. The best call, the best client you ever get is one that thinks they are walking into an abortion clinic. Okay? Those are the best clients that could ever walk in your door or call your center—the ones that think you provide abortions”—Abby at the Heartbeat International Conference on March 27, 2012. 

“If I were to open a pregnancy center, I would not have pregnancy items past six months. Are we running a charity? Are we running a place where we want women to become self-sufficient? Self-sufficient right? …have maternity clothes, have those things available for the women while they’re pregnant, but cut them off.”—Abby at the Heartbeat International Conference on March 27, 2012 

“Women that are seeking abortions, women that are pregnant, that are vulnerable, they are going into Google and they are typing ‘pregnancy symptoms.’ There’s a way in Google where you can basically set that search to your website. Your website would be the first one to come up. We want to look professional, we want to look business-like. And, yeah, we do kind of want to look medical. The best client you ever get is one that thinks they’re walking into an abortion clinic. The ones that think you provide abortions.”—Abby, 2012

“She emphasized that waiting rooms should feel like ‘professional environments’ instead of ‘grandma’s house,’ and discouraged crucifixes, fake flowers, and mauve paint before showing slides of Planned Parenthood waiting rooms and encouraging staff to make their centers look just as ‘beautiful and up-to-date,’ especially if they have a ‘medical model,’ meaning they offer sonograms and other medical services. Johnson also said pregnancy center staff should mirror Planned Parenthood’s language. ‘We need to use whatever language [women] are using, are comfortable with, and that they have been sold on,’ she said.”—Meaghan Winter describing Abby Johnson’s “Competing with the Abortion Industry” panel at the 2015 Heartbeat International Conference. 

John Oliver would use recordings of Abby Johnson leading these training sessions in his segment about crisis pregnancy centers and how they deceive women. Johnson would write an op-ed criticizing the segment with one of her bullet points being “Putting Our Best Foot Forward Is Basic Marketing, Not Deception.” Her comment that their advertising tactics are not deceptive is laughable when considering the actual definition of “deceive”. “To mislead by false appearance or statement”, “To make someone believe something that is not true”, “To give a false impression”, “To persuade someone that something false is the truth or to keep the truth hidden from someone for your own advantage”, and “A statement or action that hides the truth or the act of hiding the truth” are a few definitions of “deceive”. Abby is instructing crisis pregnancy centers to hide their pro-life ideals and dress themselves up like actual abortion providers to get women the false impression that the centers provide abortions or referrals, which is untrue as crisis pregnancy centers are morally opposed to abortion. These tactics fit the definition of deception like a glove and Abby Johnson is encouraging crisis pregnancy centers to engage in it.

She may claim that its basic marketing rather than deception, but the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates suggest otherwise. Deceptive advertising is apparently such an issue with crisis pregnancy centers that NIFLA, who provides legal counsel to CPCs, puts “Deceptive Advertising” at the top of an article detailing five legal threats to crisis pregnancy centers and recommends centers be straight-forward and honest, which is hypocritical considering NIFLA is affiliated with many centers in my state that hide their pro-life agenda and make themselves appear more professional, business-like, and medical than they actually are just like Abby Johnson is instructing.

While Abby puts on a good face and insists to the media that crisis pregnancy centers aren’t deceptive and they’re putting their best foot forward, her panel to her own peers apparently tells a different story. Meaghan Winter’s article described Abby’s “Competing With the Abortion Industry” workshop at the 2015 Heartbeat International Conference. After recommending to the audience that they not mention their anti-abortion goals while fielding calls from potential clients asking about abortion services, an audience member interjected that their center tells the truth and doesn’t get clients to think they perform abortion services or referrals when they don’t. Abby essentially acknowledged that being truthful and transparent was not how successful crisis pregnancy centers operated and she wouldn’t run a center with an honest agenda. “That’s good for you if that works for your center, but I can tell you that’s not the way we’re going to do it at my center, and that’s not the way we have seen other centers really evolve into seeing more and more abortion-vulnerable and abortion-minded women.”

Abby Johnson recently launched Love Line, a website aimed to help women facing unplanned pregnancies. True to her word, the website is devoid of any pro-life agenda despite the article and video relating to Love Line being about helping women choose to continue their pregnancies and connecting them to the pro-life crisis pregnancy centers. The website’s contact page has several options on why you’re contacting Love Line and one of them is “I’m considering having an abortion”. Without the knowledge that its a pro-life site created by a well-known antiabortion activist–knowledge that isn’t on the actual website–women seeking abortions may be lead to believe that Love Line will help them obtain abortion services. Also, its a bit concerning to me that a woman that has instructed crisis pregnancy centers to cut women off from resources after a certain period of time has now created a website to connect women who are pregnant or parenting to those resources without informing women that those resources may come with a limited time period.

What Abby Johnson saw may have never happened and what she does now involves encouraging crisis pregnancy centers to lie to women.

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