Catholic protagonist of popular book and movie delivers pro-life message at St. Mary Church in Athens
By Emily Booker
The movie Unplanned made an unscheduled appearance at Athens’ movie theater this spring. And it was a one-night sensation when the film’s real-life champion, pro-life author and speaker Abby Johnson, brought her message on creating a culture that values all human life, including children in the womb, to the town.
Ms. Johnson, who is Catholic, was in Athens at the invitation of pro-life supporters of all faiths who enthusiastically greeted her message and the movie about her life.
She spoke to a full house at the Full Circle Luncheon April 11 at St. Mary Church in Athens, which opened with the attendees singing “How Great Thou Art.”
Bishop Richard F. Stika welcomed Ms. Johnson and the film that has received widespread support as well as opposition.
“St. Mary here in Athens is always a very hospitable parish, is always open to welcoming people of all faith traditions as I do today,” he said.
He prayed, “Father, we gather together on this beautiful day that you have given to us. In some ways it’s also a very sober day in which we are reminded of an evil and abomination that exists in our world and especially in our country. But the resurrection promises us life itself, that we, like Jesus, can triumph over sin and evil.
“We pray that through the intercession of the angels and saints, but especially through Jesus, that this country might once again turn away from evil and turn toward you, Father. We also pray for Abby, who shares a message that the world so desperately needs to hear.”
Unplanned, which came out this spring, is based on Ms. Johnson’s story as a former Planned Parenthood worker turned pro-life advocate. The movie gained mainstream audience attention and box-office success despite the obstacles of an R-rating for its detailed and realistic depictions of abortions and lack of support from the mainstream movie industry.
According to Father John Orr, pastor of St. Mary Parish, the movie theater in Athens was not planning to show Unplanned until pro-life groups arranged a one-night showing on both screens.
“It was sold out,” he said.
Ms. Johnson’s story of conversion to the pro-life movement resonates with people, and she uses her story to help draw others to the movement.
“I’ve always been very vulnerable and honest with the way that I talk, so people already felt like they knew me just from reading my book [Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line], and it’s probably a little more so now with the film out. They are seeing this very intimate display of my life, and seeing it visually probably just creates even more of that feeling of closeness,” Ms. Johnson explained.
That vulnerability and honesty was evident at the luncheon, where Ms. Johnson shared from her own experiences.
At the time of the luncheon, Ms. Johnson was 33 weeks pregnant with her eighth child. One of her children joined her family through adoption, she explained. The birth mother had been told by family and friends that abortion was an option.
“When she found out she was pregnant and she went to family and friends and people in her church looking for advice, looking for support, for help in this very difficult situation, many of them told her, “‘Well this is the one time when abortion is OK. This is that one exception.’ But she very graciously responded, ‘It’s either a baby all of the time, or it’s a baby none of the time.’ She had to continually remind people that God doesn’t make mistakes,” Ms. Johnson said.
The birth mother made plans for the baby to be adopted, but just two weeks before her due date the family backed out because of a prognosis that the baby might have hearing damage. Another family was called and turned down the baby because he was biracial. Ms. Johnson heard about this woman through a friend and felt called to step in and accept this child.
Two weeks later, Ms. Johnson and her husband flew out to meet their new son. They named him Jude.
“I have to think there were times when she felt very desperate,” Ms. Johnson said of the birth mother. “Her innocent, unborn child was being rejected three times in the womb, before he was even born: once because of how he was conceived, then again because of a possible hearing deficiency—which he doesn’t even have, by the way—and again because of the color of his skin. When I think about Jude, I think about his life and truly what a miracle it is that he’s with us today.”
Ms. Johnson worked at Planned Parenthood for eight years. It was a desire to help people, to provide health care to low-income women, that led to her working there.
“It was really what I didn’t know that led me in the doors of the abortion industry,” she said. “And I truly believe that it is what women in our society today do not know that also leads them in the doors of these abortion facilities. It’s what they don’t know about their bodies, their fertility, their unborn child, the abortion procedure itself, and it’s really about what they don’t know about the radical mercy of Christ that leads them in those doors.”
Yet the longer she was in the industry the more she grew from naively believing that working for Planned Parenthood helped women to understanding that Planned Parenthood is a business focused on profit and fulfilling quotas.
It was while assisting with an ultrasound-guided abortion and seeing a baby struggle for life that she realized she could no longer support such a system.
“That’s what actually caused me to say, ‘I cannot do this anymore. I can no longer pretend that there is no humanity in the womb, that this baby doesn’t matter, that his life doesn’t matter, that it’s OK to separate a woman from her unborn child,’” she said.
“So I ended up leaving and then working to help expose what’s taking place in abortions. I think there’s a lot of ignorance surrounding abortion in our society today, but I also think there’s a desperate desire for understanding on the issue of abortion. I think people are seeking truth.”
She challenged those attending to work toward making a difference, to reach out to women in crisis to offer support and hope, and to counter a society that doesn’t value families, God, or truth. Women who believe they have options and support and men “who step up to be involved fathers create an environment that reduces the desire for abortions.”
“I believe that one of the primary antidotes to abortion is fatherhood. But we live in a society today where about half of young men in homes across the country do not have fathers in the home. So how do they learn how to be the man that God has called them to be if they don’t have somebody modeling that for them? How do they learn to be a father, a husband, a protector, provider, if nobody is showing them how to do that?” Ms. Johnson asked.
“This is where I think the Church has significantly failed, because we haven’t done a good enough job of drawing these young people to us and providing mentorship for them, being that strong role model in their life. And because we haven’t done that, we’ve allowed society to handle it. And guys, that has been the biggest failed experiment of our time.”
“I believe the answer to these societal ills that ail us, these dilemmas that ail us, is sitting right here in church. But we have to be the hands and feet of Christ to get them done,” she continued.
The luncheon event was organized by Sue Gallagher, a parishioner at St. Mary in Athens. Parishioners and other members of the community had the opportunity to learn more about the Full Circle Medical Center for Women in McMinn County and meet Ms. Johnson.
“Full Circle does a lot of work here in McMinn County, and the parish supports it,” Father Orr said.
Julie Ladd, executive director of Full Circle, gave an update on the work the center does. The center provides women medical services regarding reproductive health as well as counseling, parenting classes, abortion recovery, health education, and referrals for community resources. Full Circle does not offer nor refer for abortions.
The center had its mobile clinic set up at St. Mary Church so luncheon attendees could learn more about its work. The clinic, which travels to Athens, Sweetwater, and Tellico Plains, includes an ultrasound machine to help women understand how their child is developing in the womb. Like Ms. Johnson, Full Circle believes more knowledge about women’s bodies, pregnancy, and child development will help people understand the value of life at its earliest stages.
“It was wonderful having Abby Johnson come to Athens and share her story,” Father Orr said following the luncheon. “We have to continue to spread the pro-life gospel.”
No one experiencing emotional or spiritual difficulties from a past abortion is alone. There is hope and healing. Catholic Charities of East Tennessee offers regular Rachel’s Vineyard healing and recovery retreats. Complete confidentiality is honored at all times. For more information, contact Sandi Davidson at 865-776-4510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.