In Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader's Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line, Abby Johnson refocuses the abortion debate on what it is truly about: real people in real situations. As the director of a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, Johnson was asked one day to assist an abortionist in a sonogram-guided procedure. When she watched the fetus writhe in the seconds before the end, she was struck: “It wasn’t just tissue, just cells. That was a human baby—fighting for life!” She left her job.
It is the apparent virtue of the pro-choice cause and the enthusiasm of its proponents that first draws Johnson to Planned Parenthood. Her passion for helping those in need is immediately ignited by Jill, the Planned Parenthood representative at her college’s volunteer fair, whose sincerity attracts her and whose logic is persuasive: To “make abortion rare” requires educating women about birth control and providing safe abortions when necessary. Ultimately, Johnson is persuaded to invest herself in “serving women in crisis.”
Johnson encounters a different reality when she comes face to face with actual women in crisis during her time at Planned Parenthood. While deliberating on the issues in general terms may produce universal conclusions, it fails to grasp what is at stake for women and children in each individual case. When a young girl comes to the clinic seeking a referral for a late-term abortion, Johnson writes, “I was in what felt an impossible situation at that moment.” She adds, “I knew I had to give her the referral information, but I didn’t want to. I knew her baby was viable outside the womb—where I drew the line for abortions—and I wanted to find a way to break through to her, hoping she would reconsider.” Through examples like this and stories of those from the political arena to the exam room, Johnson shows that the universal conclusions of pro-choice advocates do not always hold up under the weight of real situations.
Johnson focuses the conflicts of the book around the tall, iron fence that surrounds the clinic in Bryan, Texas where she worked for eight years. At first glance, she wonders whether it was “designed to keep something locked in, or something locked out.” Yet the full significance of the fence was not clear to her at that moment. She says, “I didn’t have a clue how dramatically my own answer to that question would shift over time, nor did I foresee the powerful role this fence was going to play—and in fact, still plays—in my life.”
In Unplanned, Johnson makes it clear that her primary purpose while working for Planned Parenthood was to protect women. But when the organization’s need for revenue overpowers this ideal of limiting abortions, and when Johnson witnesses firsthand what a procedure actually involves, the question of who is being protected from what reaches a dramatic climax.
Her experience as the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic leaves her “amazed at how semantics can shape thought.” Reflecting on her own abortion experiences, Johnson senses the deceit in corporate jargon that proclaims abortion as “removing an unwanted pregnancy, not killing a fetus.” The same jargon dictated that when she carried her own little girl in her womb, she was “in a condition of pregnancy, not . . .the mother of a child already dependent upon [her] own body for sustenance.” It is at this level, that of discourse, that most of us are left to play out the pro-life/pro-choice battle.
But it is what she experiences, on both sides of the fence and in the clinic, that shows what people involved in the debate never see: A mother pleading at the gate for her daughter to reconsider her choice to abort; a bouquet of flowers left alone for Johnson in the middle of the parking lot from peaceful pro-life activists; and finally, the chilling abortion procedure itself. It is the progression of these experiences, and their ultimate climax in Johnson’s awareness of her role in it all, that incite reflection and, in Johnson’s case, conversion.
In my own experience working as a counselor at a pro-life crisis pregnancy center, nothing could have prepared me for some of the encounters I faced. One day, a woman—nearly fifty—came in for a pregnancy test and learned she was pregnant. Single, barely self-sufficient, and already with three grown children, her eyes glazed over with despair when I told her the news. Not yet a mother myself, I wondered if she found my offers of resources and support condescending. Yet even through her tears she could not deny that she was holding a new life.
This could not have been more different from the utter helplessness I felt when I met with a young mother of two and gave her the news that she was pregnant. She shrugged in resignation. “Well, I’m not going to have it,” she said matter-of-factly. She had already had five abortions, she told me. When I asked her if she’d ever experienced any feelings of depression or guilt, she flatly said no, as if to say, “Why would I?” I was shocked by her stoicism. It’s not the response you expect as a pro-lifer after hearing so many times that “abortion hurts women.” When she left, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of failure.
Abortion had hurt this woman, scarring her to the point of numbness. Johnson’s story is strongest where it takes experiences such as these—the agony of uncertainty and the hope of new life for the many mothers who walk into the clinic—and wrestles with them in front of our eyes.
The true value of Unplanned is its ability to show us every facet of the abortion debate: the abstract ideas, the politics, the business, the emotions, the relationships it alters, and the heart-wrenching act itself. Johnson has experienced them all, and her work as a pro-choice advocate demonstrates the tension between the three planes of the issues—beliefs, language, and personal experience—and the difficulty of trying to reconcile them.
Compassion is also a central theme of the book, not because it is written into the stories but because it can’t help but emanate from them. Johnson takes great care to emphasize that many clinic colleagues are people who sincerely believe in assisting those in need and who struggle with their sense of purpose. She recalls a conversation with one of her close friends and co-workers, Megan, who had told her that she “disliked the abortion part of our operation,” but that she stayed because she “did Pap smears and ultrasounds and served as a clinician seeing patients, all of which . . . she enjoyed.”
The mixed emotions of abortion patients themselves are laid bare inside the clinic walls and out in the parking lot. Johnson watches one client as she stops to listen to a pro-life volunteer and thinks, “She didn’t look like she felt harassed to me. Clearly, she’d chosen to talk to the pro-lifer.” When a clinic worker finally regains the client’s attention and walks her into the clinic, Johnson is confused. She thinks, “That client had looked truly interested in the information from the pro-lifer. If we are pro-choice. . .then we believe in women making their own choices, right? So why do we feel we need to protect clients from conversations about their choices?”
Pro-life advocates are displayed, too, as disparate groups with competing goals. Some are sensitive and peaceful, such as the volunteers who keep vigil outside the clinic and approach clinic workers and clients alike with gentle words of “welcome and kindness.” Others, however, are self-righteous and intimidating (one example: a man in a Grim Reaper costume pacing outside the clinic).
This book does not leave us feeling neat and tidy, as though all differences are solved and loose ends tied. Quite the contrary: The path from pro-choice to pro-life advocate is paved with pain, betrayal, and uncertainty. Unplanned provides a candid glance into the hidden corners of the debate that so often elude our conversations.
Samantha Raneri recently graduated with a master’s in international relations from Yale University.