Aleteia’s Kimberly Cook talks to Doug Johnson about his faith journey, and how he and his wife Abby, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director, became advocates for life.
Doug Johnson is a stay-at-home dad and husband of pro-life speaker and advocate, Abby Johnson. He was portrayed on screen by actor Brooks Ryan in the recently released movie Unplanned, chronicling Abby’s journey from climbing the ranks of Planned Parenthood to advocating for the life of the unborn. Together, Doug and Abby have eight children.
Doug graduated from Sam Houston University in 2006 with a degree in Kinesiology and the plan to work in a gym, but his path instead led him to teaching. After he taught high school special education for five years, the Johnson’s moved to the Austin area and decided it was better for Doug to stay at home with their daughter, Grace. At that time in Abby’s Planned Parenthood career, she did not want more children and used an IUD as preventative birth control after Grace’s birth. Little did they know that their lives would look completely different in just a few short years!
Here is my interview with Doug Johnson:
Kimberly Cook: Doug, you named your blog “Doug on Tap,” where you share insights into life as a stay-at-home dad of (almost) 8 kids, and husband to pro-life advocate and former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson. Can you explain your role as stay-at-home dad, which many men are quick to say they could never do? How has it challenged or solidified your confidence as provider and head of the household?
Doug Johnson: It was a struggle at first because you need to redefine your role as a provider. I was raised to believe that men provide for their family by going out and bringing home the bacon. You had to have a paycheck and be willing to work hard. When we had our first daughter, Grace, I had three jobs at one point, so I’m not afraid of working hard. When I started the stay-at-home dad gig, I wondered what to do with myself. We only had one child at the time. (Little did I know that we would start line jumping everyone we knew with kids – going from a family of three to a family of nine in six years!) I got caught up in having too much fun and not providing what my family needed, such as a stable home, discipline, meals, and making home a place that Abby knew she could come home to, knowing that everything was being taken care of while she was out. It took a few years to establish expectations between Abby and me, and to redefine what it meant to me to be a provider. It wasn’t about bringing home money. It was about showing my kids what it looks like to serve others through serving them. It’s developed over time and now I just look for what I can laugh at each day.
«It took a few years to establish expectations and redefine what it means to be a provider. It wasn’t about bringing home money. It was about showing my kids what it looks like to serve others through serving them.»
KC: You attended a Christian high school and during your senior year spent six weeks on the abortion issue, including watching The Silent Scream. Upon graduation you considered yourself “very pro-life.” Fast forward to your friendship with Abby. What most people don’t know is that you were actually a guest at her first marriage – which resulted in her two abortions. The second abortion via the RU-486 pill caused her hemorrhaging and severe blood loss. You said that you were probably the only friend she had to fall back on and the only one who knew about the abortion. Describe the scene when you got to her apartment at midnight and how your past pro-life convictions were challenged by the reality.
DJ: I don’t know how much my convictions were challenged because I was just caught up in taking care of one of my best friends, who was right there in front of me and deserved dignity and respect and someone to take care of her. When I got to her apartment I found her in bed as white as a ghost from blood loss. She told me what happened and I went into the bathroom. Although she had done a fairly good job of cleaning up, it was like a CSIcrime scene. There was blood splatter on the base boards and she had not yet let the water out of the bathtub. There was blood all around the toilet where she had sat. I have always felt terrible about that night and the fact that I was out with a bunch of friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and didn’t respond quicker as Abby kept checking in with me. I wish she had been a little more straightforward about what was going on. For a few months after that she wasn’t the same Abby. It definitely changed her. She still dealt with pain and passing clots. She called Planned Parenthood and they recommended heating pads and ibuprofen.
KC: Watching the movie Unplanned, as someone already convicted of the right to life of the unborn and horrors of Planned Parenthood, I found that what bothered me most was the differences in your fundamental ethical principles as a married couple. How were you (as the pro-life counterpart) able to accept abortion paying your family’s salary, as well as episodes of your young daughter being exposed to sex toys inside Planned Parenthood and noticing blood on her mom’s shoes after work? How did you and Abby manage to remain spiritually united to one another through all that?
DJ: When Abby and I started dating, I was at the lowest low on my Christian walk. I didn’t want to go into a church. Part of it was knowing where Abby worked and what that meant and what the church thought of that. I didn’t feel comfortable and Abby didn’t either. Many of the church members we met tried to talk Abby out of working at Planned Parenthood, and in the back of my mind I hoped they could do a better job than I did, because coming from me – trying to talk Abby out of working at Planned Parenthood was like when one spouse tries to tell the other spouse how to lose weight (it never goes well.) There was a lot of “go along to get along.” We had discussions and every once in a while I got to sneak in my feelings toward that. But she would also come home with the Planned Parenthood talking points, which were very effective and sometimes they would make me think that I could get behind their mission to reduce abortion. She never came home and told me about the abortions due to convenience, it was always the really hard sob stories.
I’m not sure if it occurred to me that Abby’s salary was being paid by abortion. Maybe I chose to ignore it because there were bills to pay and I thought about providing more than where the money was coming from. Abby really thought she was this women’s advocate and believed that she was making abortion rare. She never blinked an eye at how she made her money, until one day when she came home and said that her clinic had just made $25,000 in one day — just off of abortions. That grossed me out. I didn’t like the pro-life movement because we had gotten death threats, but I didn’t like abortion either. I think it made Abby sick to her stomach as well because she was really starting to peel the onion. She was trying to be the good soldier at Planned Parenthood and at the same time rectify that with the truth. There were moments when Abby said she thought she would have to explain what she had done to God. The movie nailed the part when Grace saw the blood on Abby’s shoes and I responded by saying “Are you happy with yourself?” His (Brooks Ryan’s character) face expressed exactly how I felt. There was also the time that Grace was at work with Abby and had a sex toy in her hand. I couldn’t believe that Abby was okay with exposing Grace to that. Around that time Abby and I also went to hear a pro-choice minister speak about supporting abortion. I remember him saying that life begins when the mother says “I love you and I’ll keep you.” I wondered if he thought it was some kind of magic trick, but Abby latched onto it because it was a minister and man of God who was supporting abortion.
KC: Abby explains how she originally considered herself “one and done” after giving birth to baby Grace. It wasn’t until five years later that you welcomed your second baby, and six more have followed. What changed in your hearts to want to welcome so many children into your family, and how do you respond to those who are judgmental of your decisions on this side of the fence?
DJ: My number was always five. Abby’s number was always one. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always thought I would do any job, but I always wanted to be a father and a husband. Once Abby started working at Planned Parenthood, I realized that her career was going to take over and maybe one child was it. I just felt blessed and lucky to raise one. At least I got to be a dad. Divorce was never an option – we always had a “make it work” attitude. Once you fall in love with someone, you are past the point of deal-breakers, you make it work. Once she left Planned Parenthood and we snuck our way into the Catholic Church, the Church teaching on contraception was so mind-blowing and eye-opening. Discovering all the scripture that supported it and the stories our bodies tell – we are walking around with these miracles that we take for granted. Abby still had her IUD in at the time and wasn’t ready to remove it. One day at Mass she was looking around at all the babies and said she wanted her IUD out. The doctors kept questioning her about why she wanted it removed. We wanted to grow our family right away but went through two years of infertility because of the toll the IUD had taken on her body – putting it completely out of sync. Our fertility is the only system in our body that we don’t “want” to work properly. It’s like saying, “My heart is beating too well.” Right after we had our second child Abby decided to become an NFP instructor.
KC: What voice do men legitimately have in opposing abortion and those women who choose to work in clinics? Where are men in the “my body, my choice” equation?
DJ: You’re not aborting your own body. It’s a human rights issue. Women are the only ones getting abortions. Men don’t get abortions. Women should be at the forefront changing the narrative. Abortion says that parenting is hard and you’re not strong enough. Women need to say that they don’t need abortion to be empowered, to have careers, to be moms, and to have control over their fate — even when surprises come. They are strong enough to handle it. For men, what we really need to do is start mentoring the next generation of men to come up. We need to tell men that they should be so supportive, so good, and make women feel that they don’t need an abortion, because she will have the support system she needs from them. Even parents – if my daughter got into an abusive relationship and found herself in a crisis pregnancy, she’s moving in with us and we’re going to take care of her and deal with the situation as it comes! That’s living the gospel – being the example, showing people how it’s done, and as men – being at the fence praying at the abortion clinic. A lot of women in the clinic are waiting on the man to change his mind and pledge his support.
KC: Your family joined the Catholic Church Easter 2012. What brought you to Catholicism and what are your thoughts on repentance? How have you walked through the guilt with Abby and found freedom?
DJ: For Abby, talking to others who had been through it (abortion/abortion industry) was helpful in healing. We both walked around with the weight of the crushing guilt. I was complicit in it too. I supported her as she worked at Planned Parenthood and we paid our bills with that money — accepting our lifestyle without a lot of question. There are a lot of roads you go down in that world that go against how you were raised. With coming into the Church, the thing we couldn’t wait to get to was the Eucharist. The thing we dreaded the most was first confession. What is so beautiful about first confession as an adult is that the Holy Spirit is there to remind you that you don’t have to carry your sins anymore. You can lay them down at the feet of Christ.
The first confession was huge for both Abby and me, but more so for Abby. We went to an Easter penance service with long lines and six priests. Abby sat down, looked at the priest, and just started bawling. I don’t know how many tissues she went through. It was funny because I went in right after her and told the poor priest that I was her husband. Growing up Protestant I would go to church camps and kids would get re-baptized and re-saved, and now I think, “if only they had confession. If they had that moment to reestablish their relationship with Christ.” Confession was a turning point for us. You still have to mourn the loss of the children you aborted, but you can’t dwell on that. Some post-abortive retreats teach women how to cry for the rest of their lives. Abby had to heal in public – on camera, and her story is so different from others. Abby learned from that how to help others – men and women to move on with their lives and receive proper healing. Sometimes the pro-life movement is quick to turn these people into trophies at banquets, but not all people were made like Abby. Abby was made for this.
«With coming into the Church, the thing we couldn’t wait to get to was the Eucharist. The thing we dreaded the most was first confession.»
KC: What do you want for your own daughters, and what message do you have for women without a strong father figure – perhaps even those hurt directly by abortion?
DJ: Our daughter Grace is 12 now and she wants to be a pro-life speaker. Abby and I rented out a theater for Grace’s school to watch Unplanned and Grace did a tremendous job introducing the film. The ultrasound-guided abortion scene made Grace cry instantly and we covered her eyes. The scene that really hurt her feelings though was when Abby got pregnant in the movie with Grace and she went into the bathroom and her boss told her “You know that we can take care of that for you.” I didn’t expect that to affect Grace so strongly. Abby couldn’t wait to get past the 16-week cut off period in her pregnancy, because she was so relieved that the jokes and harassment would stop.
For women without strong father figures, I would say to find women who did have a strong father-figure to be your mentor. A woman who knows what you’re going through, but had that example of a strong male growing up. You also have your example through the saints, and especially St. Joseph – how he took care of Mary, how he said “yes.” There is so little of him in the Bible, but what is in there is so powerful. He is the one who got to raise Jesus and get him through the ropes as a parent. To those women who didn’t have that example growing up, look for a mentor, and look for qualities in men that are the opposite of what your example was like. It’s not a bad thing if a man opens the door or pulls out a chair for you – he is just trying to take care of you and show you respect. He is not saying you are weak and can’t do it yourself. He’s just saying “I love you so much that I want to do everything I can for you.” He was raised by a certain kind of man. Look for certain qualities and know what you want for raising a family in the future.
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