She was “small, bubbly, and joyful. She had a radiant smile . . . ” with a “sweet” face. She was young and Sound of Music–like.
And yet, she wept.
She was a nun — in full habit. Standing outside a Planned Parenthood clinic that Abby Johnson was running in Texas.
The first day Johnson and her staff saw her, they “gawked” through the clinic window. It was nearly 100 degrees, and there she was “in a heavy, dark brown habit that swept to the ground.” Johnson, in her new book, Unplanned, remembers: “Her head and hair were completely covered so that only her face showed, a face lifted toward heaven, eyes closed, clearly praying.”
And then a “client” left the clinic: a woman who had just had an abortion.
The religious sister “fell to her knees and wept with such grief . . . that I couldn’t help but think to myself, She feels something far deeper than I ever will . . . this grief at knowing that client had an abortion.” Sister Marie Bernadette would be back, every week, on the days the clinic performed abortions. And, Johnson writes, “We could continue to see that she was deeply and personally grieved by abortions.”
The weeping sister affected Johnson: “I tried to shake it off but couldn’t get past the fact that a nun was grieving over what was happening inside my clinic.” Johnson asked herself, “How many other people cry outside my workplace because of the work I am doing?”
And she was not alone in her reaction. Writing about the first encounter of a spiritual mother, Johnson writes, “A silence fell over us for a time.” It was “as if we all felt embarrassed or ashamed. We tried to get back to work, but every few minutes someone would look out the window and offer an update on the sister, like, ‘He’s still weeping,’ or, ‘Look, one of the pro-lifers is consoling her now.’ It was agony just knowing she was out there.”
“The truth was, the sister’s simple, prayerful presence bothered most of us, Catholic, ex-Catholic, Protestant, and unchurched alike,” Johnson recalls, “as she somehow represented our consciences.”
The sister was in agony.
I thought about the sister when I heard New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg rant last week: “If they had their way, the reproductive rights of American women would be tossed away and it sounds to me like a Third World country that’s requiring women to wear head shawls to cover their faces even if they don’t want to do it.” He was responding to a simple funding bill before Congress to keep taxpayer money away from abortion. There is currently no universal, permanent prohibition. The bill would change that. And I’m not going in for burqa measurements because of it. A new senator from Connecticut called the same an “assault” on women.
I wish I could call that the day all the civility talk died, but we know better.
I don’t know Sr. Marie Bernadette, but I know why she cries. Because it’s miserable, our rhetoric and our reality.
As you might expect, Johnson no longer works for Planned Parenthood. Participating in an all-too-clear sonogram-guided abortion was the termination point for her. But it had been building. There was the “incredible irony” that, as Johnson puts it, “I had a career in educating women about contraception” and yet three times “conceived while using contraceptives.” It was the third time when she kept her child, Grace.
Complexity, confusion, disconnect — these are all words Johnson uses to describe what was going on in her life and profession. And they describe American life in general on this issue.