Before the movie that’s turning the abortion debate on its head, before the book that launched her onto the national stage, Abby Johnson stopped to pray and counsel women on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood in Columbia.
“I want to go out there with you and show you what to do,” Mrs. Johnson told Kathy Forck and Mary Hoffmeyer of the Columbia 40 Days for Life campaign.
Mrs. Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood abortion clinic manager and subject of the unexpectedly successful motion picture known as “Unplanned” (www.unplannedfilm.com), told Mrs. Forck and Mrs. Hoffmeyer to step out of their comfort zone and speak to the women seeking abortions.
“She said, ‘What are you willing to do to save babies? You are going to have to get out there and do it,’” Mrs. Forck recalled.
During that 2011 visit, Mrs. Johnson and fellow sidewalk counselor Elizabeth McClung also suggested to respectfully engage with the clinic’s staff in friendly dialogue whenever possible.
“We had been out there praying peacefully, and occasionally people would come up and talk to us,” said Mrs. Forck. “But we were never very proactive about reaching out to them unless they approached us or were crying.”
The Columbia group watched and learned quickly.
“She said, ‘Hi, I’m Abby Johnson and I want to tell you about your other options,” Mrs. Forck recalled.
Mrs. Johnson shared information about Federally Qualified Health Centers, which do not perform abortions, and the nearby My Life pregnancy help center.
Beginning that day, a combination of peaceful prayer and methodical, one-on-one advocacy has helped turn the abortion tide in Columbia.
Mrs. Forck said her group started out feeling like children going up against a giant. But over time, an unmistakable calm and confidence came to define the sacred space of the sidewalk.
“God has been preparing us every step of the way and has given us the information we need, when we need it,” said Mrs. Forck. “And it’s been a really beautiful experience to be out there on the sidewalk and to know you’re working with Him to save lives.”
The Columbia facility where an average of 800 abortions per year had been taking place experienced years-long periods without any abortions at all.
It could now be permanently out of the abortion business, although personnel still refer clients to the abortion clinic in Overland Park, Kansas.
“God is really Who is doing all of this,” said Mrs. Forck. “We’re His hands and His feet. And as we advocate from the sidewalk, we’re also His voice.”
One heart at a time
“Unplanned,” which tells Mrs. Johnson’s heart-rending conversion and exodus from the abortion industry, opened in theaters nationwide March 29.
The film has made an unexpectedly strong showing in spite of a limited number of theaters and concerted efforts to keep it from being publicized.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, recently called Mrs. Johnson the St. Paul of the pro-life movement.
She is committed to sharing her story, exposing the abortion industry’s tactics, and helping employees sever ties with abortion through her nonprofit organization, And Then There Were None.
“It all starts with changing hearts one at a time,” she stated.
In a statement released to Catholic News Service, she pointed out that in spite of the movie’s R rating, children are likely to hear and see more graphic content in most school health classes than they’ll see in “Unplanned.”
“This movie is authentic,” Mrs. Johnson stated. “Yes, it’s a movie about abortion, but even more so, it’s a movie about the truth of forgiveness, repentance and redemption, because that is what the story of my life, is really about.”
Mrs. Forck went to see “Unplanned” with about 20 people from St. Andrew parish in Holts Summit.
She believes that because it’s such a conversation-starter, it’s better to see the film with family and friends who can discuss it afterward.
“It’s really a bonding movie,” she said. “It bonds people with the pro-life message. And I think it affirms the work we are doing.”
Others’ reactions were swift and decisive.
“Everyone should see this, especially our teens and millennials,” stated Carolyn Landwehr of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City.
“This is a movie everyone needs to see,” said LeAnn Korsmeyer, director of religious education for St. Stanislaus parish in Wardsville.
“Just wow!” stated Father Mike Coleman, chaplain of Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School and administrator of Holy Spirit parish in Centralia. “I had to sit in the theater for a few minutes afterwards to compose myself. ... God bless you, Abby Johnson.”
The battle continues
The clinic Mrs. Johnson managed in Texas was the site of the first 40 Days for Life campaign in the nation.
It is now closed.
“That’s what we’re praying and working for in Columbia,” said Mrs. Forck. “We want to see the abortion clinic here permanently closed and its staff employed in life-affirming work.”
That would be no less of a miracle than Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee of the year, becoming one of the most recognizable pro-life advocates in the country.
That is the miraculous albeit occasionally uncomfortable story in “Unplanned.”
In 2009, when Mrs. Johnson witnessed an ultrasound-guided abortion procedure at her clinic, she realized she was actually hurting the women she was trying to help.
She turned to God, struggled to accept forgiveness for what she believed to be unforgivable, and began sharing her story.
“I think about that every day,” she said at a Vitae Foundation event in Sedalia in 2010. “And I think about that baby every day. But you know what I think about even more? That mother.
“She has to have heard this story so many times,” she said. “She has to recognize my face. And she has to know, that’s her baby that I’m talking about.”
In her new line of work, Mrs. Johnson has visited central Missouri several times, drawing large crowds to pro-life events in Rolla and Sedalia, the State Capitol and the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City.
Mrs. Forck believes the insights Mrs. Johnson shared here eight years ago — coupled with fervent prayer and advocacy, the passage of helpful pro-life legislation and the proliferation of mother- and family-centered alternatives — have made a huge difference.
“It’s just amazing what God is doing,” said Mrs. Forck. “Abby has been a really good friend — very helpful and approachable. I can call her and ask her advice anytime and she’s right there.”
Mrs. Forck believes further success will meet with resistance and more persecution as the prayer warriors continue their vigil on the Columbia sidewalk.
“There is a lot of spiritual warfare,” she noted. “But we know God is right there protecting us. There’s this hedge of protection that is keeping us safe.”
The volunteers praise God when people driving by yell obscenities, because it means babies are being saved.
“We know the evil spirits are angry because women are choosing life and not going into this place,” she said.