This last Saturday, half a million women participated in the Women’s March on Washington. In response to the organizers’ decision to cut ties with pro-life partners, some women elected to boycott the march while others voiced their protest on the ground. Among those marching was Abby Johnson, director of the nonprofit organization And Then There Were None (ATTWN), which provides financial, legal, and other transitional assistance to abortion workers who want to leave the industry. (ATTWN was among the delisted groups.)
Johnson herself is a former abortion worker and controversial figure who spent eight years at Planned Parenthood before joining the pro-life movement. “I ended up leaving after witnessing a live, ultrasound-guided abortion procedure where I saw a baby at 13 weeks gestation fight and struggle for his life,” says Johnson. “I knew there was humanity in the womb and that I had to work to defend that life.”
When she left, Planned Parenthood issued an injunction against Johnson to prevent her from divulging confidential information to the Coalition for Life, the nonprofit she aligned herself with after her crisis of conscience. “I had no desire or plan to ever share my story publicly,” says Johnson, “but the lawsuit was picked up by the national media, and that’s how this project got started.”
Johnson spoke recently with CT about the unique trauma experienced by abortion workers, her decision to participate in both the Women’s March and the March for Life, and why she thinks a unified branding vision will propel the pro-life movement forward.
Some pro-life women chose to boycott the Women’s March. You chose to attend (while pregnant with twins, I might add). What motivated you?
Any time there is a significant abortion rights presence, I think it’s important to have a pro-life presence so that diversity of thought is represented. It’s important that our voices are heard and that we’re willing to work together on issues that impact women. I’m at the table with Planned Parenthood and other more liberal groups all the time. I’ve worked with NOW [National Organization for Women] and NARAL [National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws] on legislation that affects women.
At the march, I had a sign that said “Life empowers women” with our abortionworker.com website. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of women who came up to us and quietly said, “I agree with you. I’m pro-life. Thanks for being here.” It was sad that they had to be quiet—they felt silenced by the march organizers. We also had women come up and say, “I don’t agree with you, but I’m so glad that you’re here representing your view.”
And what excites you about the March for Life this Friday?
I’m speaking at the March for Life in DC. We’re going to have 10 or 12 former abortion clinic workers standing on stage with me. The idea of clinic workers leaving the industry and becoming pro-life is still new to the pro-life movement, so I’m excited for people to see these women, see their faces, see that they’re normal people. The theme is “The Power of One,” so I’m going to be talking about these women and how all of their stories revolve around just one person reaching out and telling them about our organization and how that led them to leave a clinic. We as pro-life people have significant power to change not just culture but individual lives.
Some pro-life advocates view abortion workers as killers who are complicit in crimes. How do you respond to this common perception?
When I worked at Planned Parenthood, I heard a statistic that about 70 percent of people who work inside of Planned Parenthood clinics have had abortions themselves. So we’re dealing with seriously wounded people. And many times they don’t even know that they’re hurting. They know that they’re angry and defensive and don’t have joy. But they don’t know where it’s coming from. And so we have to use compassion. That’s the only thing that changes hearts. Telling them, “You’re a baby killer” or “You’re a murderer” doesn’t address the hurt in their heart. It doesn’t address where they are or how they got there in the first place. And it reinforces the stereotype that pro-lifers only care about babies.
We’ve accused the abortion industry of dehumanizing the unborn, but, in fact, we have dehumanized the people that work in the abortion industry. And so our focus as an organization is bringing the humanity back not only to the unborn child but to these workers who have been caught in that system of dehumanization.
You estimate that there are 3,200 abortion workers at clinics around the country. What’s the profile of your average client?
At least 50 percent of the women who come to us have been single mothers, so it’s difficult for them. They go to work. They go home. They take care of their children. They can’t just leave their work. That’s a huge factor that keeps them in the clinic—needing income and being the sole provider for their family. Then we have clients who are scared that they’re not going to get another job because they have the abortion industry on their résumé. That’s a very real fear and a very valid concern. A lot of times medical providers do not want to hire them, because even though they may support abortion privately, they know that it’s a very corrupt industry, and so they don’t want someone who’s participated in that on staff with them. So that is the reality for many of these workers.
And what prompts them to try to leave the industry?
Many abortion workers see that women who have abortions are being mistreated, that there’s often medical malpractice and negligence. And they don’t want to be a part of it anymore. At one particular Planned Parenthood clinic, a woman came in who was pregnant with quadruplets and had had an illegal abortion elsewhere, and she had these babies just falling out of her. The workers were witnessing this take place, and they said that they went into a room and started crying. We ended up having five people leave that clinic after that happened. So sometimes it is specific events that bring them to us.
When you first started your organization, how did the pro-life community respond?
When I started, I heard a lot of people saying, “Why would we want to help abortion workers? They’ve made their bed; now they have to lie in it.” That was disheartening, to say the least. But I thought, You know what? I’m still going to do this. I still believe that there are women like me out there who want to leave, and we’ve got to be there to help them. So we just kept on.
Then, when clinics started closing because workers had come forward with information, that’s when the pro-life movement started paying attention. And they said, “Oh, okay. Maybe there is value.” The Bible talks about the celebration of the one who has been lost. And that’s really what we’re doing, finding the ones who are lost and celebrating over their conversion and the change in their heart.
What specific supports do you offer to former abortion workers?
We help security guards, managers, nurses, accountants, and clinic directors. We provide transitional financial assistance for workers who quit their jobs, and that usually looks like a month of salary replacement for them. We also provide free legal support for the workers who need it. After they leave, they may be harassed by the abortionists or the clinic’s owner or director. Or if they’ve participated in something illegal, we want to be sure they are protected. We have over 3,000 attorneys from all 50 states that have stepped forward and said, “We’re willing to represent these workers pro bono.”
Then we have employment help for the workers. Each former abortion worker that comes to us is paired with a client manager—someone who is trained in trauma therapy and crisis intervention—and they walk with them on that journey. So our model is really a relationship-based model.
We also provide emotional and spiritual support. We really want to meet these women where they are, and many times they’re confused. They don’t know what they think about God, and so we want them to come to know the Lord at their own pace and in God’s timing.
Women who undergo abortions often experience physical, emotional, and psychological trauma. What unique trauma do abortion workers go through?
They’re scared. They have recurring nightmares. I think just about everybody who has left who comes to our ministry has said that they experience nightmares. They also experience a lot of anxiety when they leave. We heard a story of a worker, for instance, who was eating a dessert and there were some strawberries at the bottom of it that reminded her of an aborted baby, and she had a panic attack. We often think, Oh, they must be really sad, and they are. But when they first leave, they’re just trying to get through the day without having a panic attack, without becoming overwhelmed with guilt. We had one worker who, for a period of time, wouldn’t go outside because every time she looked up in the clouds she would see parts of babies. These are common experiences that we hear about from workers.
What is the darkest, most difficult part of your work?
The most difficult thing I hear from the workers who come to us is how worthless they feel because of what they’ve been a part of. At one of our last healing retreats, there was a woman who is separated from her husband because he wants to have children and she doesn’t feel worthy to have children because she was complicit in so many abortions. So the worthlessness they feel affects so many areas of their lives.
What brings me the greatest joy is when they realize that they are worthy and that forgiveness is possible for them. I get to see them reclaim their dignity and realize that “I do have value and am I worthy to be a mom, to be a wife, to be a pro-life advocate.” But it’s a slow process. Forgiveness takes a long time.
Do you ever feel haunted by your own past?
I know that I’m forgiven, and I’ve forgiven myself. But there’s times when something really knocks me back. I got an email from a gal who had had an abortion at the Planned Parenthood clinic that I used to work at. She had seen a video of me or something, and she said, “You lied to me. You told me that I was going to be okay. You told me that I wouldn’t regret this decision. You told me that it wasn’t a baby. And now I abuse alcohol and I’m depressed. And I can’t stop thinking about my baby. And if you would have told me the truth maybe I wouldn’t have made that decision.” Those were hard words to hear. And I just had to apologize and admit, “I did lie to you, and I was lying to myself. I was wrapped up in so many lies I didn’t even see that I could have potentially hurt you.” And there was reconciliation between the two of us.
What would you like to see change in the pro-life movement?
I hear a lot of people say, “I just don’t understand how a woman could ever have an abortion.” I think to myself, Really? You don’t understand how a woman could feel so pressured and so cornered that she feels like she has no other option? So I think we need to try to better understand how this woman is feeling.
I would also like to see a solid, unified branding initiative in the pro-life movement. The pregnancy center movement is beautiful, but we’re very fragmented, very scattered. And that’s why Planned Parenthood continues to succeed, because they are unified on talking points, branding, logo, color scheme, and everything. They’re this big ship and we’re a bunch of rowboats, and we’re trying to defeat this big ship in our rowboats.
That’s one of the reasons we hosted the first ever pro-life women’s conference this past year. We had 500 women from all across the country come together, and we’re doing it again next year in Orlando, Florida. The goal is to eventually have thousands of women coming together from across the country and giving out unified messages.
What are you working on at the legislative level?
For the last eight years, we have had no hope for any pro-life federal legislation. But yesterday Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy [which bans international organizations from using US funds to support abortion], so that was a good thing.
At the federal level, we’re still working on the defunding Planned Parenthood initiative. We’re not just taking the money away from Planned Parenthood, we’re moving it toward better health providers for women. It’s not that we don’t want women to have access to care. We absolutely do. We just want them to have access to comprehensive care that can provide for them and their families, so we need to re-appropriate funds to clinics that can provide this care, and then we need to get women into these centers. That’s what we can do, and it’s what Planned Parenthood can’t do.
Here in Texas we’re working on a partial birth abortion (PBA) ban. There is a PBA ban at the federal level but not at the state level. I am also working on state-level legislation that would remove parental rights from rapists who father children through sexual assault. There are currently women all over the country who have to share custody with their rapists. This is a very bipartisan piece of legislation. It’s not pro-life or pro-choice; it’s pro-woman legislation. We’ve been working state-by-state to get this law on the books and have been fairly successful.
As you think about the future of your organization, how can churches and individuals come alongside you?
We had a group of women from a church in North Carolina come forward. They said, “We know that you send mailers into abortion clinics, but we have a desire to write handwritten letters.” We said, “There are over 1,000 clinics.” There were about 5 women in the group. And they said, “We can just get started.” We ordered them stationery with our logo on it. Now we have over 100 people handwriting letters to these abortion facilities with just the sweetest messages of hope. So church groups can get involved with this project.
We also desperately need to collect names of business owners and managers who would hire former abortion clinic workers. In Tampa, Florida, for example, we have a husband and wife who own a business and are committed to hiring anybody who leaves the abortion industry. They love on these women and help them get job interviews. I would love to have a group of people who make calls to businesses in large metropolitan areas to say, “Hey, look, we need pro-life business owners. Are you willing to hire someone temporarily who leaves the abortion industry?”
We’re a nonprofit, and our ministry is expensive to run, so we are always in need of funds. And finally, we’re very intentional with prayer. People can go to our website and sign up to be part of our prayer team. We have monthly open prayer calls where people call in, and we pray for the needs of our workers and others.
Is there a particular verse in Scripture that drives your passion for this work?
Psalm 30 is a psalm that I read almost daily. It talks about how God pulled me out of the depth of despair and turned my wailing into dancing and clothed me with joy. It’s very personal for me because I feel like that’s exactly what God has done—redeemed my path, used my sins for his glory. And I do really have joy in God’s grace and his mercy and his forgiveness.