WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you will be listening in on my conversation with former abortion facility manager turned a pro-life activist, Abby Johnson. Her life is now the subject of a new movie called Unplanned.
Abby Johnson was raised like a lot of evangelical kids in the 1980s and 90s. She attended a Southern Baptist church growing up in Texas and she attended Texas A&M University, a large college in her home state. But as you will hear, this solid middle class background was not enough to keep her from being recruited by Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the nation.
She became a student volunteer first and when she graduated from college, she became a full time staff member—eventually rising in that organization to direct a Planned Parenthood facility in Bryan, Texas. But in 2009 she watched a baby fight for its life during an abortion and she had a change of heart. She left Planned Parenthood, reconnected with the Christian faith of her youth, and has since become one of the nation’s best known pro-life activists.
The story of her life first became a bestselling book and is now a movie called Unplanned. The independent film faced many challenges. For one, it was rated R, which is a rating that generally limits the market for a movie. And lots of media outlets, including some Christian outlets, refused to accept advertising for the film. But despite these headwinds, the movie pulled in more than $6 million in the box office during its opening weekend, matching the film’s production budget in the first week of wide release alone.
I had this conversation with Abby Johnson at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters held in Anaheim, California.
Abby, welcome to the program. You know, I think a lot of folks know your story. You’ve been kind of around for a while now, but maybe a lot of folks, or at least some folks don’t. And even those that do know your story may not have heard it in your own words. So can you talk, first of all about how you ended up getting in the abortion industry in the first place?
ABBY JOHNSON, GUEST: You know, I was in college when I was first approached by Planned Parenthood to come on as a volunteer and then eventually a staff member. I was raised pro-life, raised in church my whole life. But, yeah, I have to say abortion wasn’t something that we sat around the dinner table and discussed. We didn’t talk about what it was to be pro-life or pro-choice. And my parents were not activists in any way, shape, or form. So, I think it was something that we said, but it wasn’t really discussed.
SMITH: Was it a Christian home?
JOHNSON: It was, yeah. And I didn’t hear anything about abortion in my church. So it just, I dunno, it just wasn’t something that was really talked about or I certainly didn’t know the talking points of either side of this debate.
So when I met this woman with Planned Parenthood and she started giving me all of their talking points about providing healthcare for low income women, keeping abortions rare, wanting to reduce the number of abortions, I thought, well, that’s something that anybody could get behind, really. And so I was very easily lured in, especially as a vulnerable aged college student.
SMITH: Sure. So you heard this and you thought, yeah, you know, I’m wanting to get involved. I’m wanting to make a difference and so you were a volunteer and then when did that evolve into being a full-time staff person?
JOHNSON: So not very long afterward, I graduated from college and it was at that time that I was asked to come on staff. And by that time, I mean I was in it, you know. I was believing everything that they were pumping out to the media. I was really entrenched sort of in that world and in that rhetoric.
SMITH: But you are not a healthcare professional per se.
SMITH: So what were your early roles? Were you managing sort of an administrative management type?
JOHNSON: Early on I was working as a medical assistant. I don’t have that certification, but you don’t have to inside of a Planned Parenthood. They sort of train you on site. So I was working directly with patients.
SMITH: So were you seeing the abortions at that early stage?
JOHNSON: No. No, no, no. Typically in an abortion room there’s a nurse and a physician and that’s it. And so I wasn’t going into the room where abortions were taking place or anything like that. It was something that happened on the other side of the hallway.
SMITH: So it was kind of of antiseptic, kind of sterile? You weren’t seeing the actual abortions happen, but you must have — by now you were probably aware of the political conversation and the ideological conversation. There may have even been protesters at your clinic?
JOHNSON: Lots of them, yes. [Laughs] Lots of people.
SMITH: So in some ways you weren’t completely insulated. You knew what was really going on there, right?
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, look, I think I started out working at Planned Parenthood very innocently, but it was not long before I truly became someone who was not just pro-choice, but somebody who is truly pro-abortion. I had no problem with abortion. I had no problem with women making that decision. I believed that in most cases with young women, with single women, that abortion was their best choice. So I mean, I really, it was, I mean it happened quickly that my heart really became hardened to what was going on in our clinic.
And it was easy to see the pro-life movement as the enemy and that we were really fighting a battle for women at our clinic.
SMITH: So this lasted for how long? How long were you there with Planned Parenthood?
JOHNSON: I was there for eight years.
SMITH: And so I would assume that you had increasing responsibilities as you were there over a period of time?
JOHNSON: I did.
SMITH: And so when, sort of near the end, what was your role?
JOHNSON: So I eventually became the clinic director and was running the day-to-day operations, making sure budgets were a met, personnel issues, you know, all the things that you would think were managerial.
SMITH: Yeah and how many folks worked at your facility?
JOHNSON: So on days that we didn’t perform abortions, we had about eight people. On days that we did perform abortions we had about 12.
SMITH: Yeah. So this was, I mean, you were a manager. This was a significant operation. And you know, Abby, this in some ways falls into the none of my business category, but I’m a journalist and I ask obnoxious questions for a living. But I mean, you were probably making pretty good money at that time, right?
JOHNSON: I was making very good money. Yeah. I was making very good money and not only my salary was big, just my base salary, but then you got bonuses. So if you met your abortion quota, you would get a financial bonus, several thousand dollars every time you met that. So there’s a lot of money to be made in the abortion industry. I mean, Planned Parenthood in their last annual report reported over $1.9 billion in assets. So they are not a poor charitable organization. They’re very flushed with cash. More than half a billion of that every year coming from taxpayers. So, there’s a lot of money to be made.
SMITH: So, you were there. You moved up in the ranks. You were making a lot of money. You had a whole lot of reason to stay the course.
SMITH: What turned you?
JOHNSON: So a few things that happened in 2009 had really troubled me. One was that we were building—it’s now operational—the largest abortion facility in the western hemisphere, second largest to China. And we were going to be able to abort babies through the sixth month of pregnancy. And for me, even as someone who supported abortion, I just felt like that was too far. That was just way too far. Now we’re talking about viable babies that could live outside of the womb. So that was sort of the first thing that bothered me. A couple of other things happened, but then I was told that we were going to be doubling our abortion quota—a certain number of abortions that we had to sell to women—and that that was, I just didn’t understand that at all because I really believed the talking points that Planned Parenthood put out, that our goal was to keep abortion rare, to reduce the number of abortions.
SMITH: Safe, legal, and rare was the buzzword back in the day, right?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. We heard President Clinton say it. We heard President Obama say it. I mean everybody was saying it. That was the catch phrase. But here we were being told to double our abortion quota. But ultimately I ended up leaving after witnessing a live ultrasound-guided abortion procedure where I saw a 13 week unborn child fight and struggle for his life against the abortion instruments. And I knew then that everything that I had been taught by Planned Parenthood, that, number one, that babies don’t feel pain before 28 weeks. They don’t feel anything. That there was no humanity in the womb. That the baby’s life didn’t matter. All of those things, I knew that just wasn’t true in that instant. And I knew that I could no longer be a part of it and so I walked away.
SMITH: Well, when you say you walked away, what do you mean? You walked away that day? You left that room watching that ultrasound-guided abortion and just walked out the front door never to return?
JOHNSON: So what happened was that happened on a Saturday and I went home that weekend and told my husband what I had seen and that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. On Monday, I went to — I actually sought the help of a pro-life group in our community who had always told us that if we ever wanted to leave our job, they would help us. And I thought, well, I’m probably gonna need some help because I used to joke around that I was the most hated local celebrity in town. It’s a very conservative community where I lived. And I thought I’m probably gonna need some help. So I walked in their door, they said they would help me. And that next day, a Tuesday was my last day.
SMITH: Wow. Well, I’m going to pause here just for a minute and ask you maybe side-trip questions, but I’m curious. Up until that moment, what did you think of pro-lifers? You said that you’ve viewed them as the enemy, but yet on the other hand, whenever you had this crisis moment, you did turn to them. So, sounds like you had maybe kind of a complicated emotional relationship with the pro-life community. Fair to say or not?
JOHNSON: Very fair. I developed relationships with the people that were out front, the people that were kind, that were consistently reaching out to me. I mean, I did develop positive relationships with them.
SMITH: And there obviously were some of those but were there others that maybe were not so kind? I mean, what was your impression of pro-lifers at that point?
JOHNSON: I definitely saw that there were two different groups of them out in front of our clinic. There were those that called us murderers and baby killers and yelled at us through the fence and then those who were consistently offering us help and telling us that they were praying for us. So I definitely saw the difference. From a Planned Parenthood perspective, the people who were peaceful and prayerful and just offering resources to women going in, they were a legitimate threat to our business. So they were definitely more of the nuisance because they were approachable. So people would go up to them, they would take the information, they would leave. The people who were yelling and were aggressive with the big six foot bloody pictures of aborted babies, they were not a threat to us.
We actually liked when they were out there because they created the perception that inside the abortion clinic was the safe place to go. And that outside on the sidewalk was where it was hostile and dangerous. So from a Planned Parenthood perspective, we loved it when the guy dressed like the grim reaper would show up or the people with the pictures would show up. It was good for our business.
SMITH: That’s interesting. So you make this decision on a Tuesday, again, sort of falls into the none of my business category, I don’t know what your husband was doing at that time. I don’t know how much money he was making.
JOHNSON: He was a teacher.
SMITH: He was a teacher.
JOHNSON: So not very much.
SMITH: So this was a huge decision for you, financial and otherwise then, right?
JOHNSON: It was and it was scary. I didn’t have the promise of another job. I mean, it was terrifying to leave.
SMITH: Given that, two kind of related questions. Number one was what did the pro-life group do to actually help you? And number two, where were you spiritually at this point in your life?
JOHNSON: Yeah, the pro-life group, they started making phone calls to people that they trusted who were business owners, people who they thought would maybe be able to give me a job. They ended up contacting a pro-life OB/GYN in the area. He knew who I was. Told him that I had left and he said, “Oh, she’s hired. She can come and work for my clinic.” I mean, he just, I mean, he didn’t know me personally, but he was just willing to take that chance on me. And so I had another job lined up and I was really… Spiritually, I mean, I was in a tough place because I was lucky that I grew up… lucky. I was fortunate that I grew up with a strong faith foundation with my family. Because I did have that reassurance that if I followed God’s will, he would care for us. Now, I didn’t mean it wasn’t going to come without sacrifice. It didn’t mean I wasn’t going to have to give up the car I drove or we weren’t going to have to move into a smaller home or, you know, these luxury items that had been provided by my big salary. Didn’t mean that, you know, we weren’t going to have to downgrade some. But I knew that we were going to be provided for and I had a really strong support system with my parents and my family. But, you know, spiritually it was having to come to grips with what you’ve been a part of in the abortion industry for so long and then having to make peace with that is difficult.
SMITH: How did you do that?
JOHNSON: It was through practice, honestly. Every day I woke up and I had to make a conscious decision that I could either live my life in my past, the place that I could not change, the place where evil wanted to keep me bound by my past, my past sin. Or I could wake up and live in the present. I could live for Christ every day. And it didn’t mean it wasn’t going to come without consequences or difficult times, but that was a choice that I had to make. And some days I didn’t make the right choice. Some days I chose to wallow in my past sin. But with more and more practice, every day it got easier.
SMITH: Well, I’m also wondering a couple things because you could have just taken that job and gone as the poet said, “quietly into that good night.” I mean, as big as Planned Parenthood is, there are probably thousands of former Planned Parenthood employees that are just now they’re going about their lives and doing other things. But you decided to become an activist.
JOHNSON: Well, it was decided for me actually. Planned Parenthood made the decision after I left to take me to court to try to get a permanent gag order against me because I knew a lot of their dirty laundry. I knew a lot of their secrets that they didn’t want people to know. And so they were trying to get a permanent gag order. When they did that, they sent out a press release that was picked up by the AP that was then picked up by national news networks and all of a sudden I had all know had Fox and CNN and all these different groups calling me saying, “Well what don’t they want you to tell us? What don’t they want everyone else to know?”
SMITH: So that was not though a part of your plan. You would have gone quietly into that good night were it not for that?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. I had another job. I was going to work at this OB/GYN office. That was my plan. I never, ever, ever wanted to speak publicly. That was never part of what I intended to do, but you know, God can use anybody. And he used those media people at Planned Parenthood to push my story out into the forefront. And that’s really what I’ve been doing ever since.
SMITH: You know, I asked you a few minutes ago where you were spiritually and, you know, I know that this is not a transactional kind of a thing, and I hope you’ll forgive me for sort of stating it this way, but you were partially responsible for the abortion of thousands and thousands of children. I’m wondering if in your mind or in your heart if you’re saying, you know, now I can save thousands and thousands of children. And whether that helps in the healing process.
JOHNSON: It does for me. So, I know that reparation for my past is not required and to further my relationship with Christ, I know that’s not part of it. But for me, for my healing journey, sharing my story and helping to bring healing to others, it absolutely helps heal my soul and my heart. And it just, for me, it’s almost like, okay, I didn’t do that. Those babies didn’t lose their life in vain, right? Because now I’m going to go out and I’m going to do as much as I can to promote a message of life and to save as many children as I can from abortion.
SMITH: Well, I want to pivot from that to two ways that you’re doing that. One was your book.
SMITH: That book, did you know that that book was going to have the impact that it had when you wrote it?
JOHNSON: No, I didn’t think anybody would read it. I kept getting asked to write a book and I thought, well, okay. I thought honestly it would be probably healing for me just to sort of get all that out there. But I thought, nobody’s going to read this book. I mean, who cares what happened to me inside of Planned Parenthood? I couldn’t believe it when it ended up becoming a bestseller. I thought, wow, that’s really amazing. I was totally shocked. And then I sort of thought that was it. I wrote another book called The Walls Are Talking and I thought, well, that’ll be it. I’ll just write little books and I’ll be speaking and that’s what I’m going to do.
SMITH: But then the movie came along.
JOHNSON: Then I got to ask to make a movie. And that was certainly never something that I considered doing. But here we are. It’s released on March 29th and, gosh, I’m already getting… I woke up this morning to my Twitter feed just a mile long of people who had invited their pro-choice friends to go see the film and they walked out pro-life. I mean, and that’s just what God can do, you know? And I think stories are so powerful. Testimonies are so powerful. We can haggle on, we can negotiate on legislation and all this sort of stuff, but I believe it’s the power of our testimonies that will actually end this thing, that will actually make abortion unthinkable in our country.
SMITH: Well, of course that’s thoroughly Biblical, right? I think it’s Revelation, “They were overcomers by the blood of the lamb and the power of their testimony.” So you’re certainly living proof of that. I do want to ask you a couple of quick questions about the movie though, if I could. Number one is the movie is rated R and that’s likely going to limit… It’s ironic that in some states you can get an abortion when you’re 16 years old without parental consent, but you won’t be able to go to see the movie…
JOHNSON: About abortion.
SMITH: About abortion without parental consent in some states. So, did y’all — and I know that, again, one of the reasons it’s rated R is because there are some abortions scenes in there that many people would find, you know, intense, shall we say. I’m wondering how you relate to that today compared to those people that carried the big bloody signs in front of your abortion clinic years ago. I mean, it sounded like you were saying that they really didn’t have much of an impact and yet what you’re saying today is that those scenes were vital to telling the true story in your movie. Is that right?
JOHNSON: Yeah. So you’re not going to see bloody images of dead babies in this film. You are going to see what I saw. An ultrasound-guided abortion that’s computer generated. You’re going to see that. This is how I explain it. It wasn’t the death of this baby that caused my mind to change. I had seen the signs. I mean, I had seen all of that. I knew what the aftermath of abortion look like. I’d seen it with my own eyes. It was seeing the life of that child. It was seeing the humanity—that fight or flight response to save his own life that we all have, that’s innate within all of us. Seeing that. That’s what changed my mind and I think one of the reasons that abortion has escalated to the point where it has in our society is because abortion is done in secret. You can see the aftermath of abortion but you never see the baby actually die. You never see that life extinguished. This film is going to show you what that looks like and, you know, and that’s why it got the R — that’s one of the reasons it got the R rating. But we do believe that the R rating was certainly agenda driven by the MPAA, but it’s almost like, you know, they stumbled backwards into the truth by admitting that abortion is an act of violence and that it is disturbing.
SMITH: You know what, Abby, this is kind of an odd question, but I want to ask it anyway. An organization that will kill a million babies is capable of just about anything. Have you had any threats? Have you had any concerns for your safety or the safety of your family since you’ve started doing the work that you’re doing now?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, threats happen. I think there’s always a concern, you know, safety is always a concern. But I don’t live in fear. My family doesn’t live in fear. Of course, we’re not idiots. We take precautions. We do what we need to do to keep ourselves safe. We know that we’re not invincible, but we do know that God’s hand is protecting our family.
SMITH: Your kids are pretty young.
JOHNSON: They are. Yeah.
SMITH: Do they know what you do? Do they know what you did?
JOHNSON: My 12 year old understands. The other ones are six and under. But yeah, my 12 year old, my daughter does and she’s seen the film. I tell you what, she is an amazing little pro-life advocate. I put her up against anybody pro-choice any day of the week. She knows the truth about abortion. She speaks it every chance that she can. And I think that it’s important for us to be talking to our children at an early age about these issues because if we’re not educating our children, somebody else will be. And it probably won’t be the message that you want them to hear.
SMITH: And that’s exactly what happened to you.
JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely.
SMITH: So I’m assuming you hope many people see the movie and it has the kind of impact that you mentioned a moment ago where people would go into the movie pro-choice or come out pro-life. And I would certainly pray that for the movie as well. What’s next for you?
JOHNSON: So, well, I’m pregnant with my eighth baby. So babies keep me busy around our house. But I’m going to continue going around and speaking and sharing my story and sharing the truth about abortion. But I also run an organization called And Then There Were None. And we proactively reach into abortion clinics and get abortion clinic workers out, get them on a path to healing, get them into another line of work and get them into a relationship with Christ. And we’ve been doing that for about six years. We’ve had 500 workers come through our ministry. We’ve had seven full time abortion doctors put down their instruments and come through our ministry. We’ve had 21 abortion clinic closures because of the work that these former abortion workers have done working with state officials, regulatory departments. So that’s sort of my passion outside of being a mom and a wife, is seeing the transformation take place in the lives of these workers. It’s beautiful.