Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood clinic director whose about-face on abortion prompted her to resign her job, says she’s gotten flack for her decision from an unexpected quarter: her own church.
Her Oct. 6 decision to leave Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas - after viewing an ultrasound-guided abortion of a 13-week-old fetus two weeks earlier - made headlines, especially when she ended up volunteering at the Coalition for Life center a few doors away. Her former employer filed a restraining order to silence Mrs. Johnson, but a judge threw out the case on Tuesday.
Now she is facing a different kind of music at her parish, St. Francis Episcopal in nearby College Station, the home of Texas A&M University.
Whereas clergy and parishioners welcomed her as a Planned Parenthood employee, now they are buttonholing her after Sunday services.
“Now that I have taken this stand, some of the people there are not accepting of that,” she told The Washington Times. “People have told me they disagree with my choice. One of the things I’ve been told is that as Episcopalians, we embrace our differences and disagreements. While I agree with that, I am not sure I can go to a place where I don’t feel I am welcome.”
The rector at St. Francis refused to comment on the charge of nonacceptance.
“I do not intend to be dismissive,” the Rev. John Williams wrote in an e-mail, “but my pastoral responsibilities to this faith community preclude making public comments. I am sure you understand how important it is for me to foster healthy communication around this emotional issue - that is only possible, as I said, in the context of my pastoral ministry to all.”
Mrs. Johnson, 29, spent much of her 20s searching for the right church.
“I was raised Southern Baptist but didn’t find the Southern Baptist community was very accepting of my work at Planned Parenthood,” she said. “It felt there was a spiritual conflict in what I was doing, but you just begin to rationalize it. I didn’t want to leave these women without options, so you begin to think you are doing the right thing, although it doesn’t feel right.”
As a result, she and her husband, Doug, “had been told by a couple of churches,” one being Baptist and the other nondenominational, “that because I worked at Planned Parenthood, we could not be members.”
She and her husband, who grew up Lutheran, dropped out of church until two years ago, when they began attending St. Francis, a 25-year-old church that achieved parish status in February.
“I thought that because this church was so accepting, maybe I was doing the right thing,” she said of her former employment of eight years. “A lot of people would consider the Anglican faith a pro-choice faith.”
The U.S. Episcopal Church has one of the most liberal stances on abortion of any mainline Protestant denomination and is a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which supports legalized abortion.
A former longtime RCRC board member, the Rev. Katherine H. Ragsdale, is the newly installed dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, a seminary in Cambridge, Mass. She is famous for making a 2007 sermon in which she termed abortion as a “blessing.”
Mr. Williams “made it clear we were welcome” at St. Francis, Mrs. Johnson said.
“I have gone to some churches in the past where they have said, ‘You can’t go here because you work at Planned Parenthood,’ ” she added. “That’s not right. What kind of ministry is that? It’s been very difficult for us.”
The couple made St. Francis their home. They were confirmed Episcopalians, and their daughter, now 3, was baptized there. A photo on the front page of the church’s Web site, stfrancisonline.org, shows her seated at the right end of the front row, holding a girl dressed in pink. Her husband, dressed in an orange shirt, is to her right.
“Chief among our values,” says a statement below the photo, “are service, tolerance and understanding of the people and events that God has put into our lives.”
Now the Johnsons are “reconsidering” their membership. Another Planned Parenthood staffer who was a member of St. Francis has not attended since Mrs. Johnson made her new views public a month ago.
“I know Planned Parenthood told her to not have any contact with me nor attend the same church,” she said.
Rochelle Tafolla, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Southeast Texas, said the employee had chosen freely not to attend St. Francis because she was concerned about encountering Mrs. Johnson.
Forbidding any employee to attend a certain church “would never happen,” she said.
“Many things Abby has said about Planned Parenthood are false,” she added.
Churches have long debated how to handle the abortion clinic worker who wishes to join. When Dr. George Tiller first began performing late-term abortions, his Wichita, Kan., church, Holy Cross Lutheran, privately gave him “admonitions” to stop his clinic work.
Instead, Dr. Tiller left the congregation, which was part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and moved across town to Reformation Lutheran Church, which is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a more liberal body.
He was ushering there when he was killed May 31 by a lone gunman.
Mrs. Johnson, who was in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday making arrangements with a public relations firm to handle her growing speaking engagements, says she’s found a new job near her home: managing an obstetrician-gynecologist clinic.
But her attendance at St. Francis remains up in the air.
“We really, really love that church,” she said. “We don’t want to leave.”