More than a decade after the release of her best-selling book Unplanned, relating her dramatic exit from the abortion industry and conversion to the pro-life movement, Abby Johnson is back on the literary scene with Fierce Mercy: Daring to Live Out God’s Compassion in Bold and Practical Ways. Internationally recognized in the movement to end abortion, Johnson takes readers from a movie set to abortion-worker retreats, hammering home the hard lessons learned along the way, and emphasizing that there is no lost cause in the abortion industry.
Through blunders and hardships, triumphs and conversions, Fierce Mercy walks alongside Johnson in her struggle to garner support for And Then There Were None, her abortion-worker ministry, which has supported the exit of hundreds of abortion workers from the industry since 2012. The book is ultimately a story of humility and healing, and the response to God’s redemptive call, no matter how unexpected. I sat down with Johnson to talk about Fierce Mercy and her experiences fighting to end abortion.
You share so many dramatic and impactful personal stories in the book, but you chose to open with your experience on the Unplanned set. What made you decide to start there?
A lot of people know my story because of Unplanned, whether it’s through the book or the film. I wanted to start [Fierce Mercy] with something people may be familiar with or something that might help people relate to or remember my story. I wanted to make myself a little more relatable to the reader.
When people think, “she had a movie made about her,” they may think I’m not as accessible to people or my life is not as accessible to people as it is. But I’m a very normal person, so I wanted to show that.
It was a very humbling experience to have someone portray the greatest regrets and sins of my life. That was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever gone through. In that moment, when I walked onto the set … I was so ashamed. I felt like it was important for people to see that even in the midst of all that has happened in my life … I’ve had to accept a lot of God’s mercy. I had to have very hard conversations with God in the middle of that movie set.
Acknowledging and accepting God’s mercy is the cornerstone of the book – both your personal experience with mercy and witnessing God’s healing mercy through your ministry to abortion workers. Explain how, over the course of 10 years, you came to recognize this as the key to so many transformative experiences?
I think for me, growing up in the church as a Christian, I knew that God forgives us, God’s mercy is great. But translating that into your own life is something very different. Accepting that and sort of turning that into knowledge and practical acceptance is different.
And so I tell people all the time, having to learn to accept that forgiveness, having to practice and remind myself that God has forgiven me, that was all part of the journey. I had to remind myself daily, how small I am in comparison to how big God is. The smaller I became and the bigger that God became the easier it was to accept his mercy and then internalize that.
That was a core part of really accepting and understanding that in the end even the burden I have is small compared to how great he is. And that was really how I found peace.
In the book you write how the concept of mercy is not fully enacted in so many Christian and pro-life communities and ministries. You met with a lot of resistance from pro-lifers when you felt called to help abortion workers leave the industry.
Inside of [the pro-life] movement, and I think it was this way for a long time, we have been so focused on the baby, that we forgot about the souls of others. We’re at a very critical time in our culture, where we may see an end to Roe v. Wade which has been the battle that we’ve been fighting for 50 years. And then what?
If we really want to change the culture in our society, then we have to bring people into the saving knowledge of Christ and that’s not going to be done through saving babies, that’s going to be done through saving souls. If you save a soul then you will save a baby.
I think for a long time pro-lifers got caught up in this cycle of dehumanization. We were doing to the abortion worker what we accused them of doing to the unborn child.
You include some really difficult details about Kermit Gosnell, the abortion doctor who ran a horrific, dangerous and deadly practice that ultimately led to his life-long prison sentence.
I became really, really convicted talking about Gosnell and these workers who we feel are really unlovable and really unreachable. It’s just not true, there is no such thing.
Right now I’m sitting with a woman who prayed outside of my clinic. She is now the Godmother to one of my children. There were probably times in that eight-year time span [when I worked at Planned Parenthood] that she thought, ‘Abby is mean to us, she curses at us, she’s never going to leave.’ And then I did.
We pray and pray and pray for conversions and for things to happen and for God to answer our prayer, then people leave and we’re surprised. He is that big and He is that amazing, and He’s in the business of converting hearts. We should expect it.
When I started writing [letters] to the workers from the Gosnell clinic, I was expecting conversion and I was expecting to hear from one of them in my life. And I did. We have to expect conversion, but I think we don’t have that type of faith.
A lot of the writing in this book was dedicated to discussing your ministry, And Then There Were None. Was that a decision to engage more abortion workers who read the book or enlighten readers who aren’t familiar with the ministry and may have strong criticisms of an organization that ministers to abortion workers?
ATTWN was founded to really fill a gap in the pro-life movement and that is it, honestly. I wanted to talk about it because we’re in a really critical time in the pro-life movement. If Roe is overturned more people are going to turn to the pro-life movement than ever before and we are going to have, I believe, many gaps to fill.
So I wanted to talk about what it is that we do, how we do it, why we do what we do and these amazing stories that have come out of it, the healing that we have seen. I’m hoping that it will encourage others to really think outside of the box in how they can reach others. I want them to see how I did what I did so they are motivated to do something on their own.
I had no idea what I was doing, but now we’re incredibly successful. God has shown us great favor and he will do that to anyone who is faithful to him. I want people to see that this can be done; these sort of things can be replicated in their own communities.”
Compared to Unplanned, was completing this book more cathartic?
“I definitely felt like [Fierce Mercy] was more personal, and an inward look at me personally, Unplanned was personal, but this talked about being a mom, my failures as a mom at the beginning of my motherhood, our adoption story, and me as a wife. I wanted people to get to know me in a more personal way and not just as a pro-lifer or pro-life leader or someone they see on Fox News.