“Do Women Have Too Many Rights?” Abby Johnson’s Dangerous Message Delivered With Sugar


If Abby Johnson, former Texas Planned Parenthood Director-cum-pro-life maven, came to your event, she would respect your rights. That’s what she said last Thursday night over the shouts of rowdy pro-choice protestors who were packed into an auditorium at the University of Washington to hear her speak on the topic: “Do Women Have Too Many Rights?” 

And you know what? I believe her.

The hollers and eventual scuffles didn’t subside once during her hour-long talk, and plans for a post-talk Q&A were aborted as a very pregnant Johnson exited early, flanked by campus police. Yet aside from a few snide remarks to some of the more disruptive protestors, Johnson remained respectful. She sounded intelligent and even witty.

The juxtaposition between her composure and the palpable rage and disrespect shown her by pro-choice protestors was stark. Incessant shouts only accented her point about the anger that resides in the pro-choice community – “anger that comes from hurt,” she cooed – and which contributes to a shameful hostility.

“We are living in a society that is hurting. People will justify their own hurt by allowing the killing of the innocent,” she said.

Yet for many reasons, pro-choice anger is warranted. We are (still) in the midst of a downward spiral and backward slide on reproductive rights and access to health care in this country. Alarmingly, people like Johnson and the policymakers they’ve elected are winning on many fronts, and deftly using the banners of rights, care, and even “choice” to do it. We are fired up and we should be. I also question the tactics of Students for Life of America, the group that sponsored Johnson’s talk, in creating such a provocative title for that talk by which even Johnson herself seemed repelled. (On Twitter, she agreed with my assessment that the title was “ridiculous, inflammatory, and antiquated.”) And while I didn’t like what she had to say, Johnson did not deserve to be bullied the way she was. More importantly, it was a waste of our breath and a disservice to our movement. We should have been better, because, frankly, we are better.

Other than rowdy young feminists, the audience was a sea of white, wealthy hair. If everyone in that audience had magically disappeared into a wormhole, Seattle would have been rid of the lion’s share of its conservative pro-life citizens. But to those few and proud, Johnson offered reassurance:

“Don’t be discouraged. There are many people willing to stand up for the real rights of men and women.”

But what are real rights, and who gets to claim and exercise them? Everything but individual reproductive rights; everyone but women with unwanted pregnancies.

“I don’t think women have too many rights. I actually don’t think women have enough rights. […] I do support choice, but not when it comes to the killing of innocent humans,” said Johnson.

Then she segued into a defense of informed consent. “We have to give women an informed choice. I believe in that.” Education and access to “the full truth” is paramount, for women and for every individual. We should be educated about our beliefs, she said, and I agree.

Yet the point of informed consent is that it’s not informed consent unless it’s fully informed, and without bias, and unless real choices exist on which to act. Yet the education and information that the pro-life movement puts forth is too often religiously-based and unscientific, serving only to place the burden (of unwanted pregnancy, of rape, and other aspects of sexual and reproductive health) on women themselves.

Take, for example, the well-documented coercion women receive at crisis pregnancy centers, or the propagation of scientifically-unfounded claims of a post-abortion syndrome, of disproven links between abortion and breast cancer, of biologically inaccurate claims that emergency contraception is an abortifacient. Further, a completely corrupted version “informed consent” has increasingly become a tool of anti-women and anti-reproductive rights efforts. It’s less and less about actually ensuring women have information, and more about putting in place a stumbling block to inhibit women’s access to real information and real choice.  It’s become a code for “you can’t decide for yourself.”

Yet many of the points Johnson discussed in her talk actually weren’t that problematic to me. Again, she sounded for the most part reasonable. It was the logical hops, skips, and jumps she made from those points that created a nebulous of misrepresentation. For instance, in an effort to unify patient services across the country, all Planned Parenthood clinics will be required to provide a full range of services, including abortion, by 2013 (currently, services are not completely standardized among clinics).

From this, Johnson concluded that the decision was completely (and only) abortion-focused and money-driven. That Johnson has a perpetual bone to pick with her former employer is no secret. In fact, she is chief strategist for Live Action, the pro-life media group responsible for the barage of “exposes” on Planned Parenthood, which have continued to fall flat.

But from this, I concluded: “about time!” Planned Parenthood, as the largest and most trusted women’s health care provider, should be offering comprehensive services, including abortion, at every clinic, because so many women have literally no other option. Remember 87 percent of US counties have no abortion provider.

Johnson’s logical leaps continued unbounded, but they could not then – or ever – be deterred. Yet less than the words coming out of her mouth, it’s the story that she represents which is so pernicious to our individual reproductive rights. Johnson is one of those women who’s had an abortion, and even supported abortion access, and then did a complete 180.

She is the “once was lost, now am found,” repentant-whore-good-mother archetype, all rolled into one. And that’s the narrative that society has prescribed for women, for centuries, and the society that policymakers limiting reproductive rights are trying to legislate. Johnson deserved more respect for her right to speak than she got in her reception at the University of Washington last week, but the bigger story she fits into is a horror story that we cannot let play out.

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Follow Jessica Mack on twitter: @fleetwoodjmack