Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Abby Johnson Gives Talk at Anti-Abortion Banquet

On September 23rd, I attended a banquet hosted by Human Life Services, a crisis pregnancy center in York, PA. In such a close setting among people who worked and volunteered together, I worried that a stranger would attract attention. Fortunately, the night went smoothly, providing me with a fascinating glimpse into the world of anti-abortion activists.

I attended the banquet to hear a talk by Abby Johnson. A former Planned Parenthood employee, Johnson left the organization in 2009 and became a vocal anti-abortion activist. Her public talks and recent book, Unplanned, cast Planned Parenthood and abortion in an negative light.

The opening speech was delivered by Michael Ciccocioppo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. Ciccocioppo told the story of his parents who married immediately after high school because of an unplanned pregnancy. Instead of seeking an abortion, they became the parents of a baby boy (him), followed by fourteen other children through the years. Ciccocioppo joked that he was pro-life from birth, since his parents chose to give birth to him rather than seek an abortion.

Ciccocioppo looked to have been born before 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade. Was abortion readily available to women in that era? Does it make sense to talk about abortion versus carrying a pregnancy to term as “choices” when one of those choices may have been curtailed? His parents' decisions may have been right for them, but not for other women, I thought to myself.

After dinner and two short videos -- one on fetal development, and the other on HLS clients -- Abby Johnson appeared on stage. Johnson told the audience about her time working as the director of a Texas Planned Parenthood affiliate, receiving a Planned Parenthood Employee of the Year Award, and attending a banquet at which Hillary Clinton received the Margaret Sanger Circle Award.

Johnson condemned Sanger as a racist and a eugenicist, accusing Sanger of calling African-Americans "weeds" that needed to be removed from the "human garden." Planned Parenthood claims to love minorities, but if they are not racist, why do they support a racist founder, Johnson asked. Race-themed attacks on abortion are not uncommon in the anti-abortion movement, I've found (see here and here).

In hyperbolic language characteristic of many anti-abortion activists, Johnson spoke of Planned Parenthood in the same breath as Nazism. She spoke of Nazi soldiers who killed and tortured Jews (including infants, she added) during the day, but showed love and affection to their own families at home. That kind of inconsistent double life characterized her work at Planned Parenthood, she claimed. Johnson told listeners that while working at Planned Parenthood, she would go home at the end of the day and love her daughter, attend church, etc., which she called "playing good."

Johnson claimed that one of her duties at her Planned Parenthood affiliate was that of Products of Conception (POC) Technician. In every abortion clinic, she claimed, someone is designated as a POC Technician to take the materials suctioned out of the uterus from an abortion and reassemble it into a human shape. The object of this is to make sure that all fetal body parts were present, since an infection could result if any body parts remained in the woman's uterus. It was a bloody procedure, she insisted, and she had to wear black scrubs to hide all the blood she got on her.

I immediately had doubts about Johnson's claim. Johnson was not a doctor or nurse, so why would she be assigned a medical task? Also, I looked up "POC Technician" and "Products of Conception Technician" online, and the websites that used the terms were anti-abortion sites referring back to Johnson. Finally, I could not locate the term in Planned Parenthood’s job opportunities. The whole matter left me scratching my head.

On September 26th, 2009, Johnson asserted that her life changed forever. The abortion doctor asked Johnson to assist in an ultrasound-guided procedure, she said, claiming that the experience would be good for her. This, Johnson said, is against Planned Parenthood protocol because it adds time to the procedure -- and time is money -- and "it exposes their lie."

During the abortion on a woman who was thirteen weeks pregnant, she claimed, Johnson was holding the ultrasound equipment and watching the ultrasound image on a screen. When the doctor inserted the cannula probe alongside the fetus, Johnson said that she saw it jump, recoil, and try to flee from the cannula on the ultrasound screen. Suction equipment was used to remove the fetus from the patient's uterus. After witnessing this, Johnson was horrified, she told listeners. She concluded that Planned Parenthood had lied to women about the reality of abortion. She lamented that the sedated woman on the table had just given up motherhood, the "greatest gift" women ever receive.

Again, I had doubts about Johnson's account. Johnson was not a doctor or nurse, so why would the doctor select her to perform a medical task? Wouldn't the doctor want a trained nurse instead of an administrator assisting with a medical procedure? Wouldn't this create all sorts of liability issues?

Others have taken issue with Johnson's account of that day. A 2010 article in Texas Monthly states that according to patient records, the clinic did not perform any ultrasound-guided abortions on September 26th, 2009. The only other day of the month when abortions were performed was September 12th. The physician on duty said that he did not use an ultrasound that day, nor did Johnson assist with any abortions. Only surgical abortions were performed that day, none of which were beyond ten weeks. To boot, the article suggests that Johnson's relationship with her affiliate had been deteriorating before she resigned. Hmmmm . . .

Abortion, Johnson told the audience, is not a Republican or Democrat struggle, but a "spiritual battle" against evil. Working at Planned Parenthood, her mind was seeped in evil and deceived by Satan, she insisted. Johnson lambasted Planned Parenthood as "bloodthirsty", referring to its staff as "salespeople" who sell abortions to the most vulnerable members of society.

The claim that Planned Parenthood staff are “salespeople” seeking money ignores the fact that Planned Parenthood is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization (see page 28 of their 2008-2009 annual report). It is not a profit-seeking organization. Furthermore, when patients have to pay money for abortions, might that have something to do with the fact that federal funds cannot be used to cover the procedure? Or that several states have laws limiting insurance coverage for abortions?

Johnson listed four tasks that anti-abortion activists need to perform: pray, get active in the anti-abortion movement, be loud, and repent for apathy and inaction. Churches, she complained, are guilty of the greatest apathy, as three-quarters of women who seek abortions in the U.S. are Christians. Strong clergy need to condemn abortion from the pulpit. As a side note, Johnson added that some anti-abortion religious leaders have claimed that abortion is an unforgivable sin, which she condemned as a lie from the devil. There is forgiveness for women who have had abortions, she insisted.

Nothing is more important that the anti-abortion movement, Johnson insisted, because the issue is so fundamental. For instance, it trumps the economy, because if the U.S. population weren't short of millions of people due to abortion, the U.S. wouldn't be in an economic mess, she claimed. (This assumes that a larger population equals greater economic stability, which is not necessarily the case.) Abortion is also at the core of homosexuality and family decline, because many Americans don't value families. I knew Johnson was anti-abortion, but I did not realize she also looks askance at gays and lesbians.

Johnson told the audience that the money they donated that night to HLS would be "safe," as it would go toward saving children. She plugged fightpp[dot]org, warning listeners about several organizations that allegedly partner with or provide funds to Planned Parenthood, including the American Diabetes Association, Rotary, Salvation Army, YWCA, March of Dimes, American Cancer Society, Girl Scouts, and many more. A woman in the audience complained that the Salvation Army does not give funds to Planned Parenthood. Johnson insisted that Salvation Army did indeed give Planned Parenthood money, and was adamant that she did not want to give money to an organization that provides any funds to "kill" a baby.

Like other anti-abortion voices, Johnson painted abortion in horrific, black-and-white terms, framing it as intrinsically evil. In her haste to demonize Planned Parenthood, she neglected to mention the many important medical services it provides, including cancer screenings, contraception, STD testing, and gynecological and urological care. In her haste to condemn abortion, she neglected to discuss why women seek abortions. In short, I found her talk one-sided and scathing.

Critics may questions Johnson's account of her time at Planned Parenthood, as well as her motivations. However, one thing is clear. Judging by the warm reception Johnson has received from the anti-abortion movement, her message has found a welcoming audience.

To read additional commentary on Abby Johnson, visit the following links.

The Hill: Planned Parenthood physician corrects the record

Politicus USA: Abby Johnson Lies about Planned Parenthood Serving the Father of Lies

RH Reality Check: Planned Parenthood Director's Holes in Story Revealed In Recent Radio Interview

Slate: Former Planned Parenthood Director Telling Fishy Story

Jezebel: 3 Lies Anti-Choicers Tell About Planned Parenthood


  1. You are remarkable, Ahab. Thank you for attending the event, for your follow-up research, and for your detailed report. Very informative.

    You caught Abby Johnson in several lies. Do you believe she's delusional or simply dishonest? A combination of the two? Does she have anything to gain financially for spinning a bunch of lies that are embraced by people who are more interested in validation of their beliefs than the truth? I'd like to understand her motivation. Was she paid for her appearance?

    In my view, it's a toss-up between mental illness or greed. Thoughts?

  2. Cognitive Dissenter -- I don't know if she was paid or if she volunteered. High-profile speakers at events are usually paid, but I can't confirn this in her case.

    I won't wager a guess on Johnson's true motivations, but I will say that people should investigate her claims before swallowing them whole. She has become a darling of the anti-abortion movement precisely because her story isn't being scrutinized. I had a LOT of "Wha-?" moments as I listened to her speech.

  3. I tried leaving a comment last night, but the hotel decided to reset the internet connection. Grrr.

    Anyway, thanks for going and reporting. I've no doubt that abortion clinics would have somebody assemble the parts, and then, my guess, is the doctor would examine and bless the reassembly. I have trouble believing that they would have a defined technician hired specifically for that role when, apparently, they only do abortions twice a month!

    I also have no doubt that what Mrs. Johnson saw scarred her for life. (It takes a special person to deal with mangled flesh on a regular basis.) I'm not surprised that her memory has distorted the truth, whatever the truth was. However, as your reporting suggests, she seems to be spilling over with that personal hurt. I feel sorry for her.

  4. Wise Fool -- Sorry to hear about your tech woes!

    Johnson's talk was full of emotion (including a lot of negative emotions toward PP), but the claims it contained left me scratching my head.


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