Conversion Story

How Bryan's Planned Parenthood director became a pro-life celebrity.


Abby Johnson was the 29-year-old executive director of Planned Parenthood in Bryan when she resigned in October. A month later, she was on Mike Huckabee’s FOX News show explaining why she had joined the Coalition for Life, a Bryan pro-life group founded to shut down Planned Parenthood.

“I started working at Planned Parenthood,” Johnson told a beaming Huckabee, “because I was focused on prevention—on keeping people from having unintended pregnancies. But I soon found that one of their goals was to make money. And they make money by all the abortions they do.”

There was more to the story, Johnson told Huckabee: After six years at Planned Parenthood, she had experienced a profound “spiritual conversion” after watching an ultrasound-guided abortion—the first she had ever seen—at the Bryan clinic.

“When I looked on the screen,” she said, “I saw a baby on the screen. I saw the probe going into the woman’s uterus, and then at that moment, I saw the baby moving, and trying to get away from the probe.”

At this, gasps from Huckabee’s studio audience.

“And I thought, it’s fighting for its life. Its life. It’s alive. And then all of a sudden it was just over, like in the blink of an eye,” she continued,” and I saw the baby just crumble, and I was thinking, there was life in here, and now there’s not.”

Every so often, a story comes along that’s so spectacularly compelling that it practically writes itself. Johnson’s was such a story. It combined a simple, powerful narrative of conversion with shocking allegations about a conspiracy within the “abortion industry” to increase abortion numbers for money.

It’s not surprising that the national media reacted like sharks encountering a bleeding swimmer. Within days, Johnson had gone from an unemployed, former clinic director to a pro-life celebrity. She was interviewed on The Factor, ABC and FOX. Over and over, from the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) to the Drudge Report, conservative media replayed her story as a parable about the immorality of “the abortion industry.”

“After years of rationalizing that abortion was OK,” CBN reported, “even protesting at pro-choice demonstrations with her 3-year-old daughter last year—she now wants to tell everyone the truth.” Cut to a clip of Johnson leafing through a Bible, followed by Johnson standing in front of the Bryan clinic at a demonstration, holding a sign that says “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart.”

Johnson is a volunteer with Coalition for Life, Executive Director Shawn Carney told me. “But come next year, she’s going on the speaking circuit,” he said. “She’s going to have a book out. She’s going to be a huge figure in the pro-life movement.

“Before her conversion, she was somebody shooting through the corporate ranks of Planned Parenthood. That’s going to give her a lot of credibility.”

I met Johnson at the coalition’s office, a converted barbershop across the street from the clinic where she used to work. It was just before Christmas, about six weeks after she’d gone on Huckabee. The office smelled of pine and Christmas spices. Across the street, two women leaned against the fence around the Planned Parenthood clinic, praying silently.

“I was never going to go to the media,” Johnson said. She wore a polo shirt with the Coalition for Life logo. Identical shirts were piled on cabinets behind her in the conference room.

“I just wanted to get out, get a new job, and spend more time with my daughter,” she said. “But they [Planned Parenthood] forced me to go public.”

Carney, the coalition director, told a different story. He said that they were planning to go to the media “probably in mid-December, after Abby had had some time to settle in.” But on Oct. 30, when Planned Parenthood found out about Johnson’s defection, it slapped her with a restraining order—to keep her, the organization said, from releasing confidential information. Planned Parenthood sent a press release to KBTX-TV, the CBS affiliate across the street, explaining why it was seeking the restraining order against “the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life and former employee Abby Brannam Johnson.” (The restraining order was later dismissed.) The news spread fast.

“That’s how it goes,” Johnson said. “Planned Parenthood is an organization that really runs on fear—if people cross them, they like to threaten them with lawsuits.”

I asked her why Planned Parenthood would want to threaten her.

“They wanted to scare me into silence,” she said.

What Planned Parenthood didn’t want people to know, Johnson said, was that the recession had devastated their bottom line. In response, its staff had decided to increase its most lucrative service: abortions. “Earlier this year,” she said, “I noticed that while the quotas for preventative birth control—IUD insertion, sales of birth control pills, stuff like that—had stayed the same, my abortion quota had increased.”

Every TV anchor whom Johnson told about Planned Parenthood’s increased abortion quotas just nodded: yes, yes. Only Bill O’Reilly stopped her to ask, “How do you increase an abortion number?”

“They increase access to abortions,” she told O’Reilly. “The clinic I worked at only did abortions every other Saturday, and they said that’s really not enough, we need to be open to women having abortions every day of the week.”

Abby Johnson and her husband.

That sounds straightforward, but it turns out to be, at best, misleading. In our interview, Johnson said the clinic still only did surgical abortions every other Saturday. But now, she said, they would give out Ru-486, sometimes called “the abortion pill,” daily. (Ru-486 can be taken until the ninth week of a pregnancy; after that, a surgical procedure is necessary.) By increasing access, Johnson said, Planned Parenthood staff hoped to make more money by convincing more women to abort.

“The other thing they do to increase abortions,” Johnson said, “is that they don’t give women any information on adoption, or prenatal care. If a woman goes in and asks about adoption, they’ll just be like, ‘Well, you can look on the Internet.'”

I asked why.

“Well, there’s no money in adoption or prenatal care, but abortions run from $300 to $600. It’s a lot of money. Anyway, the staff there just isn’t very knowledgeable. The staff there knows everything about abortion, but if you went in there and asked, ‘When does a baby’s heart start beating,’ they wouldn’t be able to tell you.”

Johnson said that when she went to her boss, the regional director, to complain about the clinic’s new policy of “using abortions as birth control,” the meeting didn’t go well.

“She yelled at me for ‘questioning abortion,'” Johnson said, “and then she wrote me up for questioning her authority. But it was my clinic. I could ask whatever I wanted.”

The Bryan Planned Parenthood clinic referred questions about these allegations to Rochelle Tafolla, the organization’s spokesperson for Southeast Texas. “It’s completely false,” she said. Planned Parenthood increased access to the pill, but that was five years ago, before the recession started. “The idea that it was any attempt to make money, that was completely false.”

Tafolla said Planned Parenthood frequently refers women to adoption agencies and prenatal clinics; Johnson’s claim that they didn’t was, again, “completely false.”

Johnson emphasized her discovery that Planned Parenthood was “an abortion mill” was not the “the main reason” she’d left. Everything changed when she saw the ultrasound-guided abortion that “showed me the reality of abortion: that it ends a child’s life. I had always denied that to myself,” she said, “but when I saw that baby fighting for its life, I couldn’t deny it anymore. I had a conversion in my heart … a spiritual conversion.”

In the days after the abortion, she said, “I spent a lot of time praying, and I finally realized that abortion was wrong.”

Johnson said she had started volunteering with Planned Parenthood eight years earlier after meeting some activists at a Planned Parenthood booth at a Texas A&M career fair. “I had always thought of myself as pro-life,” she said, “but they were pointing out to me that if we don’t provide safe abortions to women, they’ll just get back-alley ones, and no one will be better off. They linked abortion rights to women’s rights, and I was sold, so I started volunteering.”

Johnson volunteered for two years before becoming a campus intern. She took that job, and a couple of years later she was working in the clinic, counseling patients and giving talks on safe sex at local high schools. She was hired in 2008 as executive director of the Bryan clinic.

I asked how she had liked working there.

“It was just brutal,” she said. “They demand 60-hour weeks from you for little pay, and it’s supposed to be compensation that you’re working for the cause. I gave them my all, and they just never appreciated it.” (According to Planned Parenthood, someone in Johnson’s position would be making about $50,000.)

What made her put up with that?

“I mean, I loved working with the women,” she said. “I loved being a counselor. No one cared about them as much as I did.”

That is another thread in Johnson’s story: Planned Parenthood doesn’t care about the women who came in, but she did. She wanted to give the patients information on options, she said, to let them know about the potential hazards of birth-control methods. Everyone else just wanted to put in their time and go home.

“They control their employees through fear,” she said. “They tell you that it doesn’t matter if you like it because you can never leave, because no one in Bryan would ever hire you.”

Really? I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. She thought a second. “I mean, I would say that to any employees who were thinking of leaving. I’d say, ‘Tough, because you know you’re never getting a job elsewhere in this town. Not with this place on your resume.'”

That’s pretty manipulative, I said.

“Yeah,” she shrugged, “but it was good for me, because it meant I got to keep my good employees.”

All of which raised an obvious question: If the hours were so long, the pay so little, the supervisors so abusive, if you could never leave, why would anyone come to work for Planned Parenthood?

“Oh,” Johnson shrugged again, “the money’s good.”

“When I saw her standing in my office,” said Carney, the Coalition for Life executive director, “I knew we had something big.”

Johnson showed up in Carney’s office, she and Carney both said, on Oct. 5, a week after the ultrasound and the day before she quit. After she saw the abortion, Johnson said, “I told my husband, I have to get out of there. And he said, ‘Well, I understand that, but we need two incomes. It’s stupid to throw away a job in this economy.’ So we decided, OK, it’s two weeks until the next procedure, so I’ll stay for two weeks so I can find a job, and then I’ll quit.”

A week went by, and the next Monday came. Johnson said she was growing desperate, sitting in her office, “crying, praying, ‘God, please get me out of here.’ And then I looked outside, and I saw those people praying, and I knew where I had to go.”

It was near the beginning of the 40 Days for Life, the Coalition’s annual 40-day, round-the-clock vigil outside Planned Parenthood. Protesters were praying and waving signs outside. Johnson got in her car, as she tells it: “I could have walked, but I drove, and I walked into the coalition, and they welcomed me with open arms.”

Johnson went there, she said, because she had “nowhere else to go. There was no one I could talk to at work—no one there could have understood what was going on in my heart. You can’t question abortion in those circles.”

Proof of this came after her conversion, she said, when she “got kicked out” of all the liberal groups in Bryan. “I mean, I don’t understand why anyone cares. I’m basically a pro-life Democrat: I’m for gay rights, unions, I voted for Obama. I was active in the Texas Democratic Women, the Brazos County Democratic Party—I’m still technically a member, because I paid my dues this year. But as soon as I questioned abortion, forget all that. I was out.”

(Neither the Texas Democratic Women nor the Brazos Democratic Party has any record of Johnson paying dues since 2007. There is a state organization of pro-life Democrats. In fact, Maggie Charleton, the Brazos County Democrats membership coordinator, said the group met in the Brazos Democrats’ Bryan office during the 2008 election cycle.)

“They claim to be so tolerant and everything,” Johnson said. “But there’s no spirituality in the abortion industry. They couldn’t accept the idea of my having a conversion.”

Johnson didn’t always feel that way. She was the Brazos region’s 2008 Planned Parenthood employee of the year, and was outspoken about abortion rights and how pro-life groups were bad for women. In a Sept. 27 interview on the community radio show “Fair and Feminist,” for instance, Johnson criticized the language of the pro-life movement, specifically the phrase “abortion industry.”

“Only 3 percent of our services are abortion,” she told the interviewer, Shelly Blair, who had asked if Planned Parenthood was really an “abortion facility.” “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.”

She had this to say about the 40 Days for Life campaign, which she would soon join: “It’s a protest where they stand outside of our facility for 12 hours a day, during business hours. We call it ’40 days of harassment.’ They stand outside and harass our patients.”

Blair, the “Fair and Feminist” host, asked Johnson why abortion rights were important to her. “It’s important to me because I think it’s a human rights issue,” she replied. “I had talked with some physicians who performed abortions pre-Roe v. Wade and listened to them talk about their horror stories of women who had to have illegal abortions and the way they would perform them and how they would have to watch women die from illegal procedures. And that really hit home for me as a woman and as a mother.”

That interview was recorded on the day after Johnson saw the “baby crumple” on the ultrasound monitor, the day that supposedly changed her life.

The Abby Johnson who appears on the fuzzy webcam tape doesn’t look like a woman whose world has just been shattered; she’s cheerful and chatty. She’s repeatedly critical of the Coalition for Life. At one point, Blair tries to change the subject, saying she doesn’t want to make the entire show about the coalition. Johnson says, “Why not? They’re the ones doing this.”

Now she works with them.

“I was just doing my job,” she said when I asked her about the interview. “Part of my job for Planned Parenthood was to make those people outside the clinic seem dangerous, so when I worked for them, that was what I did.”

So all that she’d told Blair about harassment, stalking, death threats—none of it was true?

“Not really,” she said. “The coalition never harassed me. And those death threats, when the FBI investigated them, they said they thought they might be from people I worked with—it makes Planned Parenthood look like the victim if their employees are getting death threats.”

“Fair and Feminist” interview with Johnson.

So, I asked, if you lied to your employees about their employment prospects, and you lied to Fair and Feminist because it was your job, why should anyone believe your conversion story? How do I know you’re not lying now too?< p>

“It doesn’
matter if you do,” Johnson said. “The magazine you write for, it’s liberal, right? The people who read your article aren’t going to believe me anyway.”

“This is such bullshit,” Laura Kaminczak said. “Pardon my language, but I mean, really.”

Kaminczak said she and Johnson were best friends from 2005, when they were both getting their master’s degrees at Sam Houston State, until Nov. 4, when Johnson announced she was joining the coalition. Johnson had helped Kaminczak get a job at the Bryan Planned Parenthood clinic. Later, when Kaminczak left her husband, she’d slept on Johnson’s couch.

According to Kaminczak, who talked to her friend regularly last fall, Johnson quit Planned Parenthood for entirely nonreligious reasons. Kaminczak said Johnson’s reasons boiled down to workplace drama. Kaminczak had been promoted to assistant director at another clinic, she said, and she and Johnson had kept up via e-mail. Those e-mails contained graphic talk about Kaminczak’s sex life, as well as “inappropriate discussion” of their respective employees. One of Kaminczak’s “problem employees” saw the messages on her boss’s computer and, when Kaminczak pushed for her to be fired, complained to regional supervisors.

Kaminczak wouldn’t be more specific about what was in the e-mails, but she said that it was bad. When Planned Parenthood read the exchanges, she was fired for “inappropriate use of work e-mail.” Johnson was placed on a “performance improvement plan,” which meant she had to meet with Diane Santos, the regional director, every week “to discuss her performance.”

“So Abby was feeling really pressured, and everyone was treating her differently,” Kaminczak said. “She was so pissed. She felt like she’d given them everything, and this was just a slap in the face.”

That, Kaminczak said, is why Johnson resigned.

“I talked to her right after she saw that abortion,” Kaminczak said. “She was super-excited about it—she said it seemed a lot more humane then the normal procedure, like the patient was in a lot less pain.”

She wasn’t bothered at all?

“I mean, I asked her that,” Kaminczak said. “She said no. And I asked her if people at the clinic were going to be OK with it, and she said, ‘Well, if we hire this doctor, and this is how he does things, I guess they’re going to have to be.'”

Kaminczak’s story might help explain the three-week gap between Johnson’s leaving Planned Parenthood and her coming out for the coalition. “She called me two weeks before this whole thing broke,” Kaminczak said, “and she told me she was thinking about going to the coalition. She had been having serious money problems—she’d been talking about bankruptcy—and she told me that Shawn [Carney] had promised her $3,000 speaking gigs if she came over.”

Blair, the “Fair and Feminist” host, also volunteers at Planned Parenthood, and she told a similar story. She considered Johnson a close friend and role model, she said, and just before Johnson quit, the two were “working on some things in her office. And she was on hold, looking at all of the loan information, saying, ‘I don’t know what to do, I’m thinking about declaring bankruptcy.'”

Johnson, Kaminczak thinks, left Planned Parenthood because she felt unappreciated, and then realized that she had serious financial problems that could be complicated by her departure. Johnson’s conversion, she thinks, was “completely opportunistic.”

“This whole thing is really just about a disgruntled employee,” Kaminczak said. “That’s all. It’s all just her way of getting back at Diane.”

Johnson flatly denied her former friends’ takes. “I didn’t get in trouble for the e-mails,” she said. “That was all Laura. I got written up for ‘questioning abortion,’ that was all.”

What about the bankruptcy story?

“It’s laughable,” she said. “I mean, literally, all that about the bankruptcy makes me laugh. There’s no truth in it whatsoever.

“Anyway,” she added, “the coalition’s not paying me a dime to be here. I’m just a volunteer.”

In that case, I asked, how are you making rent?

“Speaking gigs,” she said. “I went to New York a couple times, and I went to Brenham [Texas]. The bulk of all that is going to be starting up in January, though.”

Johnson denied ever saying anything positive about the ultrasound-guided abortion to Laura: “I started to tell her about it, and she just said, ‘I can’t listen to this,’ and wouldn’t let me go on.”

Why, I asked, would these people lie about you?

She shrugged. “They’re atheists. They don’t believe in religious experiences, so they have to find another reason why I would have left. And all they can come up with is money.”

I had one more question. I had heard veiled references from her former friends about how her conversion was, as one put it, “ironic, given certain life choices she made.”

When Kaminczak said something similar, I asked if she meant that Johnson had had an abortion.

“Um,” she said. “Yeah. I don’t even know if I should tell you this, but what the hell. She was a surgical patient twice.”

Was that why she started volunteering for Planned Parenthood?

“Yeah,” Laura said. “From what she told me, and I do believe this, everyone was so nice to her, and she thought, you know, I should volunteer. That’s pretty common. Many of the patients there end up being volunteers.”

When I called Johnson for a follow-up interview, I asked: “Abby, you said on your interview with CBN that women who have abortions shouldn’t try to carry the guilt themselves—they should let God carry it for them.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Is that what you did?”

There was a long pause.

“With what?” she asked.

“With your procedure.”

There was another long pause. Finally, she said, “You can’t put that in your story. That’s none of your business, and I don’t know how you know about it, but you can’t put it in your story.”

A few minutes later, Johnson called me back and left a message saying that if I “chose to include that in the story,” she would “be forced to consider that a violation of HIPAA [the federal act which protects patient privacy] by you and your publication, and I will have to take appropriate action.”

In a later message, after I had pointed out that reporters are not bound by HIPAA, she amended her response. “Print it if you want,” she said. “It’ll just make me look even more credible, because people will know I’ve been there. I don’t even care.”

What makes a person who goes on the record about how pro-life groups “lie to women” join a pro-life group? How does a person go from criticizing pro-life language to using buzzwords like “the abortion industry” and “the culture of death,” or equating pro-choice women with atheism?

Johnson’s answer is that she saw the light. True or not, that story is appealing to the pro-life movement because it fits something they have argued for decades: that if people understood the reality of abortion, they would, as Mike Huckabee said during his interview with Johnson, “be running out of those clinics.”

In the political sphere, this line of thinking has been behind the decades-long campaign to require women to see ultrasounds before they get abortions. Currently, three states—Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi—require women to see ultrasounds of the fetuses immediately before abortions.

For those in the pro-life movement, Johnson’s conversion is further proof that ultrasounds are a way to make women “choose life.” What happened to Johnson in the procedure room, the Coalition for Life’s Carney said, was that she “finally saw that what ‘abortion’ means is to kill a child.”

More colorfully, Bryan doctor Haywood Robinson said that “God touched [Johnson] and opened her eyes. When she saw that image on the screen, when she saw that baby being destroyed, she saw through the veil, the deception of the enemy, and she came back to God.”

Note the wording: “God opened her eyes.” “She finally saw.” As soon as Johnson “saw” abortion on the ultrasound screen, she “understood the reality.” As soon as she understood, she chose to fight it.

This is essentially the narrative of every early Christian convert, from St. Paul to St. Augustine. A life of sin, a moment of truth, and suddenly everything changes. It’s a powerful, archetypal story that has moved people for centuries.

But Johnson will also talk for hours about all the ways that Planned Parenthood compromised its (and her) principles. She’ll talk about how she was into prevention, and caring for the patients, and showing them their options, and her colleagues weren’t.

Local news report on Abby Johnson.

The problem is, when God reaches into the operating room and shows you that abortion is murder, there’s a bigger issue then these petty failings. If abortions are murder, then it doesn’t matter whether Planned Parenthood was performing them ethically.

Murder with proper informed consent is still murder.

By itself, this inconsistency in Johnson’s story is meaningless—people are capable of holding dissonant views, especially where religion is concerned. By themselves, Kaminczak and Blair’s stories are just hearsay. By itself, Johnson’s claim about the Texas Democratic Women could have been a careless error. Johnson’s claim that she was “never going to go to the media,” which contradicted what Carney told me, could have been a simple misunderstanding. Her boast about how good she was at lying for Planned Parenthood could be indicative of nothing more than how unethical that organization is.

But these things add up. Johnson can’t stop talking about the people who wronged her, about how hard she worked, about how little she was appreciated. She’ll talk about how nasty her boss was, how her co-workers sold her out, how no one cared for the women as much as she did. She’ll talk about how the progressives kicked her out of their club because she became pro-life, and how her friends dropped her, and how unfair it all is.

The more she talks, the more Abby Johnson’s issue with Planned Parenthood seems to be its treatment of Abby Johnson.

In one sense, Johnson is surely right. It really doesn’t matter if I believe her, because she isn’t talking to me. To the people who already know that abortion is incompatible with spirituality, she has become a symbol of their truth. The inconsistencies in her story won’t matter to Johnson’s future listeners. She’s going to have a long, profitable career in the pro-life movement, telling cheering audiences about the day that God reached down and showed her the truth.