As a 30-year veteran fighting in the trenches of the abortion war, I found Abby Johnson’s book unPlanned — a story published only 18 months after she quit her job as head of a Bryan, Texas, Planned Parenthood abortion clinic — remarkable. The book is commendable on a number of levels. First, Johnson’s conversion from abortion facilitator to abortion protestor (embraced by David Bereit’s Coalition for Life — later, 40 Days for Life) is a compelling personal narrative that provides enormous insight into the confused thinking and personal conflict of an abortion provider. Its politically unbiased perspective on the interaction between abortion staff and pro-life protestors is remarkable. In addition, unPlanned is notable for the way in which Johnson’s involvement with abortion supports nearly everything pro-lifers have been saying for years about abortion and its practice.
Of course, the book is not without flaws. I would recommend skipping the poorly thought-out introduction, in which the reader is admonished to believe that abortion providers are good, compassionate people — even though they are involved in the killing of the innocent. These (thankfully few) pages have a strange, relativistic ring. While the author bravely reveals her own two abortions and expresses her guilt and loss, those feelings remain vague and unexplored. The reader would like to know in what way she undoubtedly misses those aborted children, and how or if those abortions wounded her psychologically and spiritually, but the book is missing this in-depth probe — the kind of examination she does provide with the abortion in which she assisted.
Johnson’s story begins when she is called to participate in the abortion of a 13-week-old unborn child. When she observes with her own eyes the ultrasound image of “a perfectly formed baby” trying to escape the suction cannula — and the “tiny perfectly formed backbone being sucked into the tube” — she states the experience shook “the foundation of my values and changed the course of my life.” From there, the book chronicles her journey from volunteer rookie at the Bryan clinic to her final realization that she had been working in a “death house.” This may seem odd, but Johnson as “committed abortion clinic director” interacting with pro-life protestors and struggling with her own ambivalence about abortion is the far more compelling read. Once she is converted, the narrative loses momentum and becomes somewhat canned and contrived.
This is not to say that the later part of the book is without important — and even powerful — episodes, such as the night Johnson went to the Planned Parenthood clinic to pray and face the building from the pro-lifers’ “side of the fence” — to, as she says, “face what I’d done. . . . It was here that I’d aborted my second child . . . here that I casually scheduled the deaths of countless children . . . I was standing face to face with my sin, embodied in that building.”
As noted already, Johnson’s book is remarkable for the way it corroborates what pro-lifers have known to be true about abortion and its practice. A few examples:
- Birth control doesn’t prevent abortion. Johnson herself admits that she became pregnant three times due to failed contraception; two of those pregnancies ended in abortion.
- Abortion clinics are profit-driven, as was (at least eventually) the case with the Bryan clinic.
- Women scheduled for abortion may receive little to no counseling prior to the procedure, as Johnson experienced with her own first abortion.
- RU-486 abortions are not less traumatic than surgical abortion. Johnson describes her physically horrific and emotionally lonely experience with this abortion method.
- Abortion is ultimately the result of not recognizing the unborn child as a personal someone connected to the human family.
This last point is a major lesson of Johnson’s book. She literally fled the abortion clinic only after the life of an unborn child — the child she helped to kill — became personal to her. Through the ultrasound image, Johnson came to realize that this unborn child was real. She even compares the child about to be aborted to her own daughter at twelve weeks.
This brings me to one troubling aspect of unPlanned. The more strident, more confrontational variety of pro-life protestor is vilified throughout the book. Among them is a woman who stood outside Johnson’s clinic holding a graphic image of an aborted baby. Johnson, now pro-life, frequently refers to the sign as a sick, ugly, “awful placard of the aborted fetus.” Her criticism is ironic, given that a similar image provoked her own conversion: that “violently twisting, crumpled body — the little spine just sucked away” — the baby she helped abort. What is the difference between that awful ultrasound image and the poster of the “awful aborted fetus”? Ultimately, there is none. What makes the difference is how one perceives the images.
To the abortion advocate, the poster of an aborted baby isn’t really a photo of a baby. The poster’s visual message is interpreted as simply a tactic of the opposition, and so the subject of the poster is dismissed with the tactic itself. The baby remains impersonal to the hostile viewer.
Johnson, however, was converted by a graphic image. The baby whose body she helped dismember was accepted on his own terms. Once the humanity of the unborn becomes personal, their existence cannot be ignored. And this is exactly why the use of such images has a necessary place in pro-life work. The primary burden of unborn children about to be aborted is that they remain hidden.
Johnson derides the more aggressive pro-life tactics, and to a certain extent this is a valid criticism. The fact is, some pro-life strategies are more effective than others, and I readily concede the point. And despite my defense of graphic images in pro-life work, such images should not be present if sidewalk counselors have a real opportunity to talk to women entering clinics. (One may view “Effective Sidewalk Counseling” at my website.) Nevertheless, the reader of unPlanned is left with the impression that confrontational but perfectly legitimate pro-life activism — residential pickets of abortionists’ homes, for example — would fall under Johnson’s condemnation.
Nevertheless, her book provides a valuable lesson, and pro-lifers need to listen to it. Whatever we do, we must do with love — and that means love must be shown even to the enemies of life. While a graphic image of an abortion victim shook Johnson’s own commitment, it was the true charity of the pro-lifers outside of the Bryan clinic that eventually drove her into their arms. Gestures of love from the “other side of the fence” made a huge impression on her. This is the sort of charity that made Johnson not simply an ex-abortion provider but a valuable advocate for the pro-life cause.
Her odyssey is an important sign that those who do evil are not beyond the reach of grace. unPlanned is a plea to other abortion providers that they, like Johnson, will take the “unplanned” journey into the arms of the living God.