It’s been five years since Abby Johnson walked out of her Planned Parenthood abortion facility on October 5, 2009 in Bryan/College Station, Texas — the very place where 40 Days for Life started. I will never forget that day.
A few weeks later, Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit against Abby and me, sent out a press release and caused a media storm that placed Abby at the center of the abortion debate.
Since that day, Abby’s inspiring story has been spread far and wide through her book, Unplanned, and thousands of media stories that came from the biggest conversion the pro-life movement has seen in decades. When it happened, it didn’t seem that big. It was an answer to the prayers of our staff and volunteers at the Coalition for Life in Bryan/College Station, Texas. While I was overjoyed, I was also worried for Abby knowing that if, and when, Planned Parenthood found out she had a change of heart, they would not let her ride quietly into the sunset. Unfortunately, we would find out that my gut feeling was correct.
God’s timing is not our own. That fall was the most stressful time of my young life before Abby walked into my office. I was serving as the director of a local organization, the Coalition for Life, and a few months before we bought the property next door to her facility and remodeled it. We were planning to open it in September to receive women who needed free pregnancy tests and counseling.
I had just found out that my family and I were moving to Virginia as 40 Days for Life was growing at a rapid pace – and we could only tell close family members. I was also helping another pro-life group acquire another building near Planned Parenthood. That had turned into a bidding war between Planned Parenthood and an adoption agency. My mother in-law began treatment for breast cancer and my wife and I had three children all under the age of three and I was traveling more than ever. Then Abby walked in.
Looking back my wife Marilisa (who had spoken to Abby many times across the fence) and I see how God used that season in our lives – and obviously in Abby’s life. God’s timing can sometimes mean that when it rains it pours.
A lot has happened since Abby quit her job including her former abortion facility closing their doors. Abby and I worked in opposition for eight years. The past five years have been far more enjoyable, as God has used her story to save lives from abortion and reach the souls still working inside the abortion industry.
Here are the top five things that I have learned about Abby Johnson since she crossed into uncharted water and came knocking on our door.
5. Abby is for real
I knew Abby for all of the eight years she worked at Planned Parenthood. And if it hadn’t been for those eight years, I would have asked the same question so many asked me when she left: “Is she for real?”
What did surprise me in those first few days were the people I thought would believe me didn’t … and the people I thought would never believe a word from her mouth were the first to offer help. Given the circumstances, I understand both reactions. I don’t understand the few who, even 18 months later, thought she was a fake. Some people will never convert enough for others.
I knew Abby’s conversion was genuine because I knew her. She is incapable of hiding what she is thinking — what you see is what you get! That was true when she worked for Planned Parenthood and was true the moment I saw her weeping just minutes after she walked into my office next door to her abortion facility. It was further confirmed the following weeks as she sat in my office. We talked, laughed, and quickly became friends after years of opposition. I remember the phone call with Planned Parenthood where she turned down more money and refused to go back after they couldn’t find her replacement. They responded to her rejection with a lawsuit. Her life after becoming pro-life was not free of persecution.
From the day she left, she began to see herself in a different light — and it wasn’t easy for her. She had become open and honest about abortion and God went to work on her. He had been working on her heart for a while. but seeing a baby boy aborted right before her eyes sent her conversion from her heart to her head. Abortion was now wrong and could not be defended in any way.
What makes Abby’s conversion for real and so beautiful is her conviction going from her heart and head to her will. She had to change her life, actions and commitments. She had to conform her will to the will of God. She made the jump from accepting the truth to following the truth.
Lots of people think and feel abortion is wrong; but willing it out of your life when it has been your identity is true conversion. Willing it out of our culture after you help spread it takes humility and courage. Her change on this issue was instant and constant. Abby meant what she said as a director of Planned Parenthood and meant everything she has said since October 5, 2009. I learned that day and the weeks following that Abby is a lot of things, but she is no phony.
4. Abby is loud (just ask Planned Parenthood)
I the feeling when Abby left but looking back it is true — we knew her better than Planned Parenthood did.
Abby struggled with working there and that was apparent to us but not to Planned Parenthood. Abby in conversation always had a tone of justification or rationalization for what she was doing. She was quick to say she was a Christian and there was an undertone with her that the other workers didn’t have. She wanted Christian approval for what she was doing and that’s always a sign of a troubled conscience. When she left, her former boss said, “She always had a little religion in her.” Classy.
Abby also talked to us too much. We had a staff meeting about this topic after Abby had yelled at one of our volunteers over something. From those incidents to the occasions where she would come out and talk to me, Abby seemed to be getting comfortable with us. That is dangerous if you are Planned Parenthood. She was the director; but how a staff member or supervisor from out of town didn’t address this as a potential problem is beyond me. If I’m Planned Parenthood, I don’t want any of my staff conversing with pro-lifers. It went unnoticed and the Holy Spirit began planting seeds.
They didn’t really know her that well and that was on full display in the embarrassing way they mishandled her resignation. When Abby left, they tried to silence her by filing a lawsuit against her; and by doing so, they handed her a microphone.
Abby was lying low and I was trying to find her a job through every contact I had. You may not know the name Abby Johnson if Planned Parenthood hadn’t cause a media storm by sending a press release in an attempt to scare her from the public eye. It is laughable now to think Abby would not respond with a loud voice to their aggressiveness.
Media, speeches, books, legislation, starting a ministry and lawsuits have all been part of her not-so-subtle reaction. Abby is loud and Planned Parenthood is finding out the hard way just how loud she can be. I thank God she is now loud for the right side of history.
3. Abby is generous
I know Abby well and we have been through a lot. I know her strengths and weaknesses and she knows mine. I must admit that I have been the most surprised at how generous she is with both her time and money.
She has a big heart and is quick to act. She was protesting the banquet of the Coalition for Life in 2009 … and then thanked the crowd for their pro-life work in 2010!
I don’t want to go into details, because most of her generosity is very private. But I have seen Abby behind the scenes write checks to meet the payroll of struggling pro-life organizations and to former clinic workers who left but then could not pay their bills. I’ve seen her and her husband Doug open their home to pro-life interns and college students traveling on mission work.
I remember when she had stomach flu and was literally sick in the restroom at an event she was speaking at, went on stage to give her testimony … and then went back to the restroom. At a 40 Days for Life trip to England, she had just found out she was pregnant with child number 4 (Carter) when she got delayed 18 hours at the airport and then was sick the entire trip. But you would have never known it as she went through hostile media interviews and gave four speeches with no payment – all without one complaint.
As we traveled from venue to venue in England, her husband Doug and I began to joke in her presence about how miserable she must be. She kept a full schedule and didn’t complain once; and believe me, she could have. Half asleep on the way to the airport, we drove her by Buckingham Palace and just pointed to it since she was on the phone doing a media interview as we drove past.
We were able to laugh about it. That trip is much funnier now that it is over, but at the end of the day that trip, along with so many behind-the-scenes incidents, have shown me just how generous Abby is and her willingness to sacrifice to defend the unborn.
2. Abby is stubborn
There was a comical scene in the hearing where Planned Parenthood tried to sue Abby and me after she left her job. I was sitting between our lawyer and Abby, and he and I were calmly exchanging notes as Abby’s former employees (and friends) testified against her. Going in, I knew this would be difficult for Abby. But we told her she needed to stay calm and maintain good composure for the judge as they ripped her to shreds.
How naive was I back then? Abby calm in this situation — are you kidding?
She of course was fuming and kept violently stabbing her pin to click it, write a note to me, and then violently click it again — over and over again. Her scowl was in full force. Everybody could see she was boiling over. I personally felt sorry for the poor pen!
Afterwards, as the judge threw out Planned Parenthood’s case against us within an hour, I was able to poke well deserved fun at her and we had a good laugh. She had a lot at stake that day, but that could not stop her emotions — they were on public display. I’m Irish — we are loud at dinners, mad when things are fine, and happy when possible disaster seems to be approaching; so her behavior in the courtroom drove me crazy.
Abby is stubborn and stubborn people are easy to like and easy to dislike. At times, God has used her stubbornness. Like all of us, our gifts can also be our vices. But Abby’s passion, when channeled, has been disastrous for the abortion industry across America. Imagine being in a board room for Planned Parenthood trying to predict what she will do, say, or reveal next. That is not a good place to be.
The abortion industry fears her because she has chosen to use her gifts to help end the gruesome work she was part of. Because she was part of it and knows how it operates, her stubbornness is a huge obstacle for them.
1. Abby is blessed
As a person who was trying to offer women abortion alternatives, drive down abortion business, help our community become abortion free, and put Abby out of a job, I had no idea five years ago just how blessed Abby is.
Abby has a selfless husband and loving parents. Through Abby’s conversion my greatest joy — aside from seeing Abby make this transformation — was discovering and getting to know her parents and her husband, Doug. Doug is a saint; just ask Abby or anyone who knows both of them.
The reality is that Abby was in a dark world that few escape. The abortion business is an evil and dangerous place. It requires souls to turn from truth, love and light to participate in what seems compassionate care under the guise of personal freedom. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “In the absence of faith we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chambers.”
For Abby, her falling for one Planned Parenthood lie after another led to her witnessing the most horrific scene we have to offer as a culture when she saw — with her own hand assisting — a 13-week-old baby boy fight for his life and lose it right before her eyes. Blind compassion had come with a price. Thank God she recognized the horror of abortion for what it is and had the humility to get out.
Occasionally I force myself to remember Abby driving into work, swiping her security card, and walking in those doors on early Saturday mornings when abortions were done. I do this to remind myself what God did with this woman.
She could easily still be scheduling abortionists to come in from out of town or be assembling the babies who were aborted to make sure all the remains were there. She didn’t just dabble in that dark world. She dove in and lived it for eight years. Unless we reflect on that, we can easily forget the power that God’s love and mercy has. Abby remembers that darkness and I’m sure it fuels her passion to help the workers who are at abortion facilities today.
Abby is blessed that she was given the grace to get out of that hell on earth. She has since been given a whole new life and, for the first time in a while, the joy that comes with the freedom of forgiveness. In 2012, after years of growing in her faith in Christ and love of scripture Abby felt called to enter the Catholic Church. I, along with Heather Gardner, had the joy of sponsoring her and Doug during that beautiful Easter weekend. The joy that came from Abby leaving the abortion business is not best displayed in her testimonies against Planned Parenthood, her book, speeches, media interviews, or her new found friends.
The joy of her leaving Planned Parenthood can be seen clearly in an updated family portrait. Her four beautiful children — three of whom were born in the last five years.
Abby’s joyful openness to life cannot be denied and I’m sure baffles (or perhaps inspires) her old friends on the other side of the fence. What a beautiful sight to see her children after this long road.
When she found out she was pregnant with number four, she sent me a text, “We caught the Carneys, #4 is on the way!” Five years ago if I would have sent her a text, the police would have been questioning me the next day. But that’s changed now because she took a left out of that driveway five years ago. In doing so, she took a risk – a risk that we would not believe her; a risk that we would not forgive or help her. Any of us in her position would have feared hearing, “You made your bed, now sleep in it.” I did hear that from a few people about Abby.
She didn’t calculate risk because there is no risk when you follow the truth. As hard as it was, Abby is blessed to have had the grace to see the truth and conform her life to it. Not after questioning, calculating, or planning, but a true conversion that is prompt, generous, and constant.
After five years we know that Abby’s story has changed hearts and minds – there have been a total 103 abortion workers who have left their jobs during a 40 Days for Life – Abby was the 26th.