Sold-out conference propels pro-life movement

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Empowerment as a woman began for Abby Johnson in 2009 at age 29 – the day she walked out of Planned Parenthood after eight years of employment. 

Not having a clue of her next job, Johnson knew she had to leave the clinic after witnessing a doctor perform an abortion with ultrasound guidance.

“Seeing a 13-week-old baby move away from the abortion instrument … trying to get away from this danger was something that I didn’t think happened,” she said. “I don’t know if the baby is experiencing pain, but this baby is feeling this probe on its body, and that was not something that was supposed to happen, according to Planned Parenthood (which said babies didn’t feel anything until 28-weeks’ gestation). That was the defining moment – if I was going to keep up with this lie … or I was going to walk away knowing it was wrong.”

Having grown up – first in Louisiana, then in Texas – in a pro-life home, Johnson said she drove home and told her husband what she saw. Also pro-life, her husband with whom she had already had one child, asked what she was going to do.

Her association with the clinic dated to college days, when a Planned Parenthood representative explained how the clinic’s services helped women. She wrestled with possibly continuing to work there but not participate in abortions.

“But, I realized … that everything we did (at Planned Parenthood) revolved around abortion,” she said. “Women would come in for Pap smears. And, when we would find out they were pregnant, we would make them an abortion appointment. … Every phone call we took was an abortion appointment.”

A few days after witnessing the abortion, she noticed a young girl holding a brown paper. “I knew it was the abortion pills. I knew I couldn’t do this anymore. That was the day I walked out.”

She eventually sought refuge at The Coalition for Life, whose volunteers had prayed outside the clinic and told her they would help if she left. 

“I thought, ‘Let’s see if they would make good on their offer.’ I went over to their office and shocked them, and they said they would help me with whatever I needed.”

What happened after

Fast-forward 10 years. Johnson now has eight children and lives in Austin, Texas. She’s had two documentaries made about her decision to leave Planned Parenthood and a movie, “Unplanned” written and directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon and screened throughout the United States to overwhelmingly positive response, she said. The DVD release of the movie will be in the fall.

Knowing how difficult it is to leave the clinic because of the paycheck and not having emotional support, Johnson founded “And Then There were None” in 2012 to help others leave Planned Parenthood’s employment. The nonprofit provides resources, transitional financing, pro-bono legal help and human resource managers to help with resume writing and job searches, licensed therapists to discuss their experience and healing retreats where women connect with other women to address the residual trauma from working in the industry.

Johnson said she has helped more than 500 workers.

“They need help and healing for what they are experiencing,” Johnson said. “A lot of times these women never tell anyone where they work. They are living with the burden that is heavy to bear. … Whatever barriers were being put up for that person to prevent them from leaving, we want to have solutions.”

Conference opens eyes

Four years ago, Johnson started a Pro-Life Conference, which this year was at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner. It was the largest pro-life conference so far, selling out with 800 tickets.

Johnson was a keynote speaker and moderated a panel of former abortion clinic workers who had a variety of experiences in the abortion industry – as a nurse, educator, university researcher. They spoke frankly about their change of heart.

Among the panelists were Lori Kelly, Nalloly Ruiz, Shelley Guillory, Barbara Beute and Monica Klein. All regret ever working at a clinic that performed abortions.

Ruiz told the crowd that the panelists are not bad people.

“God works in a lot of ways. I got out, and now I am here,” she said.

 “All these years later, it is affecting us,” Beute said about the panelists. “God never gives up on you or me. … We are here to change someone else’s mind or help in some way. It truly has changed my life.” 

“It’s a good experience for people to hear the perspective of these workers because the pro-life movement has been, for a long time, pretty disconnected from those in the abortion industry,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of pre-conceived notions about them – who we think they are, who we want them to be in our minds. So, to hear from their hearts – what got them involved, what led them away – is a good learning opportunity for the pro-life movement. … As a movement that stands for life, we need a reminder that we stand for those in the industry as doctors and nurses. It breaks down any perception of them.”

At the conference, two pro-life women received awards for their dedication to the pro-life cause. Jennifer Bowen received the “Pro-Life Woman of the Year” award for her courage and service; Serrin Foster received the Legacy award as the “Women Deserve Better” campaign founder and 1994 founder of Feminists for Life. Foster has spoken at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“We can be empowered women and reach all of our goals with a baby in tow,” Johnson told conference attendees. “With all of you here, and this getting bigger and bigger, we can make abortion unthinkable.”

“I hope that people will energize and actually go and do something,” she said about the conference. “A lot of these people are pro-life, but their pro-life involvement is going to a banquet and donating money – which is good. But, we also need more activism – for people to go and do the work, to be more involved. I think when they hear my story, hear the reality of what’s going on in these clinics and how women are being targeted in the industry, that they need to be involved. That is the hope.”

More to her story 

Johnson has written a second book, “The Walls Are Talking,” a compilation of stories from abortion clinic workers who have left abortion industry jobs and attended an “And Then There Were None” retreat.

In 2012, she converted to Catholicism with her husband and has found the Catholic Church very supportive.

“The Catholic Church is 100% pro-life and has always been supportive of my efforts and those of us in the movement,” she said. “Plus, the sacraments. I can’t imagine being anywhere else at this point.”

Johnson, who attends about 70 speaking engagements each year while raising eight children, said she partnered with the Culture of Life 1972 clothing line to create professional line of clothing for women.

“Big designers support Planned Parenthood,” she said.  In her search for apparel to  wear to speaking engagements, she mentioned on Instagram that she wished there was a pro-life clothing company. She happened to meet the pro-life owners of the brand Culture of Life 1972 (the last year before the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion) at a conference, and they reached out to her.

“I told them I didn’t need T-shirts – I needed professional wear I could go to church in.“

They invited her to create a more professional clothing line that launched at the New Orleans conference. Ten percent of profits go to “And Then There Were None.” She’s hoping to create a line of appropriate clothing for the hard-to-shop-for preteen group, launch maternity and nursing wear, and expand her professional line.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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