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.
Over 1.2 million abortions occur annually in the United States, with a disproportionate number concentrated in our poorest communities, and among women of color, as Helen Alvaré recently noted during testimony on Capitol Hill. It may not have been perceived that way by some of the more adamant abortion-rights activists on the committee, but her testimony was a valentine to women. The George Mason University law professor called for “a thoughtful conversation about the meaning of health care.”
Alvaré — a longtime defender of the unborn as well as women and men affected by abortion and by a widespread, decades-old contraceptive mentality that hurts them both — observed “an emerging scientific and cultural awareness that abortion is not health care,” noting that even “many abortion providers and advocates of legal abortion” call it “killing.” And that is “associated with women’s ‘immiseration,’ and not their flourishing.” Alvaré continued: “According to leading scholars, it certainly appears that more easily available abortion has led to expectations of more uncommitted sexual encounters — a situation which itself contradicts women’s demonstrated preferences — and thereby to more sexually transmitted infections, more nonmarital pregnancies and births, and more abortions.”
Throwing contraception at the problem, as Johnson knows all too well, isn’t a panacea. The problem of why women ever feel like they need an abortion has deeper roots — in individual lives and in our culture.
As Johnson writes, “From my first days at Planned Parenthood, I’d told myself I was there to decrease abortions. Now, the absurdity of that logic — or lack of logic — screamed at me. Not only had I been a leader in abortion efforts here in Texas, lobbying at the capitol, repeating clever talking points to the media, and running an abortion clinic, I’d even aborted two of my own children.”
It’s not a problem that’s going to be solved in a day, a debate, or a bill — much less a column. But we’ve had a series of wake-up calls lately: A brutal clinic in Philadelphia. Disturbing undercover videos from the young activists at Live Action, about the callousness — however well-intentioned — inside some of the most mainstream, taxpayer-funded, clinics. And yet proponents of these modest legislative moves are accused of “assault” on women by purported leaders who should know better. Unfortunately, somewhere in all the violent, reckless, heated rhetoric, lives are lost, and women and men are living in misery.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.