The Saintly Courage of Abby Johnson

My mom (at right) and I (at left) were thrilled to meet the courageous Abby Johnson in person.
My mom (at right) and I (at left) were thrilled to meet the courageous Abby Johnson in person.

Two nights ago, the Women of Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Edmond, Okla., hosted a wine and cheese reception that featured a keynote address from former-Planned-Parenthood-exec-turned-advocate-for-life Abby Johnson.

I’d heard Abby speak once before, so I was delighted to find that not only was she as fresh, funny and invigorating as ever, but she also delivered new material in her speech, even as she reinforced what I found most compelling the first time I heard her.

Among the many salient statistics and arresting anecdotes in her remarks, these three “lessons” most impressed me:

(1) The Blessed Mother is every bit as good as advertised at guiding her children gently, but inexorably, to her Son and His Church.

On many a Monday morning for the eight years she worked for Planned Parenthood, Abby said she stooped to weed the flowerbed outside her clinic of Miraculous Medals. Planted by members of the Coalition for Life who ceaselessly prayed outside the clinic, the Medals theoretically meant nothing to Abby, yet she thought they looked too nice to throw in the trash. So, she casually collected them in a plastic bowl in her office. Eventually, she had to transfer them to a larger bowl.

On that fateful day in 2009 when she left the Planned Parenthood clinic for the last time, she carried her bowl of Miraculous Medals with her. “People will ask me, ‘Abby, why are you Catholic?'” Abby said, and then shrugged with a smile, as though the Miraculous Medals explain it all. She’s always been drawn to the Blessed Virgin, she said, and can see in retrospect just what a hand Mama Mary had in her conversion.

(2) Rage should give way to compassion in the pro-life movement.

As has been both widely reported by new media and widely ignored by traditional media, the Center for Medical Progress recently released a series of videos that purported to prove that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for a profit.

Even more recently, a report circulated to the effect that the CMP did, in fact, deceptively edit the videos in at least 42 different instances. CMP then responded to the report and claimed the edits did not change the substance of the videos.

In her remarks Thursday,  Abby addressed both the CMP allegations against Planned Parenthood and their selective editing.

Planned Parenthood does sell fetal tissue for a profit, Abby said unequivocally.

“I know that to be true because we did that at the clinic when I was there,” she said. “We got $200 per baby that we sent to the research department. Our shipping cost was probably about $1 per baby, so it was almost 100 percent profit. So, is that happening? Yes, it is happening. It’s happening at only a few affiliates, not very many, but it does happen.”

The Center for Medical Progress need not have spliced the videos, she said.

“The truth is bad enough,” she said. “We don’t ever have to exaggerate the truth and we certainly don’t have to ever be deceptive or ever be dishonest. We can’t. We shouldn’t. Look who we’re representing. We’re representing Christ. We must always be aboveboard any time we’re defending these children.”

The videos also had an unintended negative effect on many post-abortive women, Abby said, as well as sparked anger among many in the pro-life movement. To Abby, that anger is counter-productive.

“We don’t need any rage in the pro-life movement,” she said. “We need to be sure as pro-lifers – particularly as pro-life women – that we are really reaching out to women who have been affected by abortion. That really needs to be our message – a message of love and grace and compassion – and getting these women plugged in to post-abortive help and resources and counseling services. Just put down the rage and pick up the compassion.”

Perhaps most importantly, Abby said, the furor over the videos temporarily obscured the ultimate hope of the pro-life movement, which is not to defund Planned Parenthood or to spare fetal tissue from medical research, but to save souls and lives by changing hearts and minds.

“I am not as interested in what happens to the babies’ bodies after they’re aborted,” she said. “I’m more interested in making sure they’re not killed in the first place. That’s my focus.”

(3) Contraception has no place in the pro-life ethos.

Abby was frank and funny about her gradual conversion from a contraceptive mentality to a radical openness to life. Her husband, Doug, read Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and came to oppose contraception before she did.

“I thought, ‘Oh no! My husband is a crazy, anti-contraceptive person now!'” she said. “I had an IUD. I was a proud IUD user. I was going to have it until I died.”

One day at Mass before she was Catholic, she found herself in a pew behind a lady with a baby. Something akin to baby fever overtook her and she turned to Doug: “I’ve got to get my IUD out,” she whispered.

She called her doctor’s office at the first opportunity and negotiated with the nurse to squeeze her in for an appointment to remove the IUD that very day. Today, their family includes five children, ages 8, 3, 2, 1 and 6 mos., the youngest of whom is adopted.

Abby didn’t mince words on her current stance on the subject.

“You cannot be a pro-life person and tell me that you also support contraception,” she said. “It does not work. You cannot say, ‘I am pro-life and I believe that life begins at conception, but I’m going to put something in my body that can up to 10 percent of the time cause an abortion.’ That doesn’t line up. That’s never going to line up. We have the rampant abortion rates that we do because of the widespread use of contraception. When you close yourself off to life, life ends.”

“Most priests* are not willing to get up and talk about this; they’re not brave enough because many, many Catholic women are contracepting,” she continued. “If they’re not going to do it, we need to do it. We need to be really strong about it.”

“No woman needs to be on contraception,” she added. “That is a lie. There is no natural health reason that a woman needs to be on contraception ever — never ever, period. … Birth control is only masking an underlying problem, not treating it, and we want to treat women, not just mask their symptoms. … Women deserve better than that. We are not second-class citizens and we deserve true health care and that never includes contraceptive methods ever.”

As I listened to Abby on this and every subject she addressed, I wanted to ask her, “What, if anything, frightens you?” Yet, somehow, I knew I needn’t. No doubt she is afraid of something, but, just as I imagine Saint Joan of Arc or Saint Maria Goretti, her concern for souls evidently outweighs whatever fears she possesses. Saintly courage if ever I’ve encountered it.

*Note: My own pastor, Father Stephen Hamilton of Saint Monica Catholic Church in Edmond, Okla., is not among those priests who will not address this very important issue. Check out two of his recent awesome homilies that touch on the subject here and here.

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