Whether or not you plan on seeing the pro-life film “Unplanned,” and regardless of whether you consider yourself pro-life or pro-choice, you should consider reading the book on which it is based.
Former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson’s biographical narrative about her conversion from pro-choice to pro-life is powerful, not just in illustrating how evidence can change the mind of even the most dedicated abortion devotee, but in its unique insight into the nature of front-line abortion clinic workers like herself and abortion seekers. The book is almost guaranteed to shift your perspective on one or both groups.
Some aspects of the abortion mindset she discusses are fairly easy to wrap your head around. For example, in many cases, women come in for an abortion with the mindset of “If I have this child,” as if a baby were still a potentiality. That is how Johnson described her own thought process regarding her two abortions. “What I saw,” she writes, “and by now was reinforcing in the minds of other young women as part of the Planned Parenthood organization, was that I was in a condition of pregnancy.”
She confessed she suspected that keeping the pregnancy a secret from her parents was an attempt to “avoid it becoming ‘real’ for me” (p. 45). Like most women, she declined to see the ultrasound photos after the clinic workers determined how far along she was in her pregnancy. “My story. . . illustrates the complexity, the confusion, and frankly, the disconnect between behavior and values that permeates our culture,” she writes. “I spent many years counseling women whose thought patterns were not unlike my own.”
Yes, the Abortion Industry Deceives Women
Women who choose abortion are not monolithic, although people on both sides of the proverbial (and literal) fence often treat them as such. It is considered orthodoxy among both pro-lifers and pro-choicers that women who face unplanned pregnancies are victims, though their victimhood is framed in different ways. While pro-choicers insist they are victims of difficult circumstances, and more so of their own power of reproduction, pro-lifers say women are victims of a predatory abortion industry that has filled their heads with propaganda.
I recently interviewed Johnson on my podcast, and she didn’t mince words on the length Planned Parenthood goes to narrow the scope of perceived choices for women in unplanned pregnancies. She told me no one was promoting adoption as an option before she brought in representatives from adoption agencies to train the staff on adoption counseling. “That was very looked down upon by my superiors,” she said.
Abby believes exploitation of both women and children is intrinsic to abortion: “Any time you are oppressing the rights of another person in order to uphold your own rights, that is one of the definitions of abortion. . .[abortion] can’t be separated from its exploitive nature.” It’s only logical to consider women who abort as victims of exploitation.
But All Women Are Not Deceived
Yet that does not mean all women are manipulated to the same extent, or that they have been deprived of their free will by cultural mores or pro-choice sloganeering. The experiences Johnson recounts in the book reveal the diversity of women who find themselves in an abortion facility, and a diversity of choices made from within it.
Women who abort their children range from women who find out they are having twins and decide not to abort (not uncommon, according to Johnson), to a woman in her 36th week who offered her baby up for adoption, to much more heartbreaking accounts in which one would be hard-pressed not to consider the pregnant woman cold-hearted. Johnson recalls:
The first time I ever encountered a woman seeking a late-term abortion left me shaken. She, too, was petite, but with a big, full, pregnant belly. She looked like she could give birth at any time. I happened to be filling in at the front desk when she walked in.
‘I’d like to schedule an abortion, please.’
I did a double-take. Her tone of voice was as nonchalant as if she’d just ordered a Big Mac. I ushered her to the back where we could talk privately and asked her to talk to me about why she’d come in.
‘I just found out I’m pregnant and I’ve just got to get this thing out of me. I feel like I have an alien inside me.’ I was so taken aback I was speechless. I spent some time listening and asking questions, doing an intake interview, and trying to get a handle on the real story. Though I found her perspective shocking, she seemed fully cognizant of the facts. Yet somehow she truly seemed not to have realized she was pregnant until quite recently, and no matter how far along she was, she wanted that baby aborted.
. . .An ultrasound revealed this woman’s baby was twenty-three weeks. I explained to her that abortion was not an option for her at Planned Parenthood.
She would not be thwarted in her goal. ‘Then where can I get this thing taken out of me?’ (p. 96-97)
After describing the late-term abortion procedure to her in detail, Johnson remembers her reply. “Yeah, I know how it’s done. I don’t care. I’ve just got to have this abortion.”
She narrates another client case that left a distinct impression on her. Here, she details the scene as she seeks to escort a young woman into the office for her scheduled abortion:
As I approached the girl’s car, she got out on one side and the friend who had accompanied her got out on the other. Her mom was standing just outside the fence calling to her, obviously in real emotional pain. The rest of the family stood in a semicircle behind the mom. I stepped up beside the girl and put my hand on her back. ‘I’ll bring you around to the back entrance. It’ll be quicker that way.’
The girl didn’t answer. The mother’s voice, through her weeping, was filled with desperation. ‘You don’t have to do this,’ she called, her voice anguished. ‘We want to help you. We can support you. You can live at home. We’ll give you money – whatever it takes! Don’t do this.’ Her mother’s pleas were so heartbreaking that my heart was pounding with the tension.
And as I stood waiting, the back door of the car opened and a little girl got out – maybe two years old. It was the daughter of the who’d come in to have the abortion! And as she stepped up beside her mother, she saw her grandmother on the other side of the fence. ‘Hey, mamá!’ she called innocently.
The grandmother wept even harder. Hanging on to the fence now as if to support herself, she cried out, ‘The baby you’re carrying will be just as beautiful as the daughter you already have! Just think if you had decided to abort her – think of all the joy she has brought into our lives. Imagine a world without her! Please – you don’t have to do this!’
. . .I escorted her inside. ‘Are you alright? Do you need to talk about this first? Are you sure this is what you want to do? Because it sounds like you’d have a lot of support from your family if you were to keep the baby.’
I am not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t what I saw next. She shrugged it off. ‘Oh, that’s just my mom,’ she said. ‘That’s how she is. I’m fine.’ (p. 118-120)
The compassion Johnson feels for women in unplanned pregnancies or other difficult circumstances radiates through the whole book, even during her time at Planned Parenthood. In fact, it was her compassion that drove her, misguidedly, to continue working for Planned Parenthood for so long. It is a motivation she said other coworkers sincerely shared.
Women Are Not Always Victims in Choosing Abortion
The patient members of the Coalition for Life on the other side of the fence, just outside the clinic parking lot, shared that compassion and desired to extend grace and help toward even the most firmly “abortion-minded” women. Johnson credits and praises God’s grace over and over throughout the pages of “Unplanned,” particularly in revealing to her the truth about abortion.
That is why Johnson’s stories of such clients should prompt readers to consider whether we’ve painted the abortion-minded with too broad a brush, whether we’ve adopted rhetoric that isn’t as accurate and precise as it should be, or limited their interpretation based on our assumptions. For instance, does “love them both” mean that women under no circumstances should ever be held accountable for illegal abortions? The common assumption that love and justice are mutually exclusive, and that women are only victims, leads many to that conclusion.
While “Unplanned” doesn’t deal with those questions head-on, it does challenge us to think outside our pro-life or pro-choice boxes and to think holistically about abortion-minded women, as well as the clinic workers who facilitate their abortions. The women waiting in the clinic lobby are more complicated than any snappy line that can fit on a poster board, and Abby is living proof that the workers who interact with abortion clients aren’t necessarily hard-hearted or bent on evil. In the book, she recalled telling her husband that if every Planned Parenthood clinic employee saw what she saw in the ultrasound-guided abortion, half would quit.
As with all big issues, it matters whether we establish our discourse on abortion with pie charts and slogans or with an empathetic grasp of the complexity of the set of actors in question. Each main camp on abortion pitches their policy positions as the most dignified and compassionate, as the most humanizing.
Yet humanizing those actors doesn’t mean shoving them all in a victimhood box and calling it compassion and mercy. Nor does it mean making one particular person with a convenient story the standard-bearer for a whole demographic.
Humanizing means learning about how real people conceive of their own choices, as shocking and repulsive or utterly heart-wrenching as they may be, or as small or big a percentage of a group they reflect. Those stories aren’t the basis for morality, as if our feelings could decide right from wrong, but they are part of the foundation of civil, truth-loving, and effective advocacy.
Don’t just take a page out of “Unplanned” that’s convenient to your preconceived ideas. Take all the inconvenient ones, too.