“I used to call myself pro-life”

Former clinic director Abby Johnson says she's now anti-abortion. But do more "converts" go the other way?

Topics: Abortion, Broadsheet,

For anti-abortion activists, the allegedly abrupt anti-abortion “conversion” of former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson is the jackpot woman-bites-dog story of the century, or at least the week. But let us not forget all the planes that didn’t crash, so to speak: “99.9 percent of clinic workers who see ultrasounds and provide abortions don’t have sudden, suspicious religious conversions,” Amanda Marcotte wrote yesterday at Double X. And no matter what you believe about how Ms. Johnson came to link arms and wave signs with those whose threats of violence she’d said, plausibly, that she feared, another reverse story is also true: plenty of women “convert,” if more quietly, the opposite way, from anti-abortion rights to pro-choice — especially (though not only) when the issue shifts from abstract to personal.

Ann Moore, a senior researcher associate at the Guttmacher Institute, has conducted in-depth interviews with women in abortion clinics. When asked how they found out about the clinic, she told Broadsheet, some women responded that “they used to protest outside.”

There’s also Anna Clark, who wrote in RHRealityCheck in 2007 that she once believed “abortion was murder” and suspected that “women used the procedure to bypass the consequences of sex.” After a gradual, examined change of heart, she writes, “Today, I have the passion of a convert for reproductive rights.”

Clark also quotes Dr. Melissa Gilliam, who practices pediatric and adolescent gynecology at a University of Chicago hospital, and also performs abortions. “People obtain services for their reason,” Gilliam said. “We luckily don’t have protesters, but they tell me about how they protest (a clinic) one day, come in the next, and are back out protesting a few days later.”

And, a former clinic director from Raleigh: “I can’t tell you how many times I checked in a patient who said, ‘Now I don’t believe in this kind of thing, but…’” she said. “…It’s all those ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ that make abortion services a necessary part of the reproductive health dialogue.”

Gloria Feldt, recalling her first experience with direct abortion services when she moved to Phoenix to head up the Planned Parenthood there, told Broadsheet this story: “A 17-year-old Catholic High School student came in wearing her pleated plaid school uniform. She knew where the clinic was because her priest had brought the students down to picket as a class assignment, and she had believed in the anti-abortion position she’d learned there. Then she became pregnant; her boyfriend of the same age accompanied her to the clinic where the staff learned that she had a kidney disease and had been warned by her doctor that it would be dangerous for her to carry the pregnancy to term. Much sobbing and total rethinking of the issue followed. She did have an abortion.”

All of which is not to count beans or thumb noses. It’s just to say that changes of heart go both ways, and — unlike the easy-to-peddle version of the Johnson story (which not even Fox fell for in its entirety) — they are likely nuanced and complex and shaded with gray. And that while it may in .01 percent of cases be easier to support abortion when you do not witness it daily, it may be easier to be — or become — pro-choice when you feel in your very own hands just how precious, and essential, that freedom of choice is. 


Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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