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Ahead of her speech at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday evening, Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned prominent anti-abortion activist, said she hoped to deliver “the most provocative, impassioned, memorable” anti-abortion speech in history.
“It’s pretty graphic,” she said in a recent podcast interview teasing the speech.
That it was. But before Ms. Johnson got to the gore, she started by outlining the plot of her 2010 memoir, “Unplanned,” which was turned into a feature film last year: Ms. Johnson gets a job at a clinic in Bryan, Texas, where she’s eventually encouraged to increase the number of abortions that are performed at the facility. But everything changes for her when one day she watches via ultrasound as a surgical abortion is performed.
Reporters have raised questions about some of the central elements of this story. Among them: Ms. Johnson claims this abortion took place on a day when the Bryan clinic did not perform any surgical abortions, according to the clinic’s records. Elements of her story have changed over time — such as her purported knowledge of the documentation that some abortion clinics must submit to state regulators. (When confronted about such inconsistencies, she suggested that Planned Parenthood may have falsified documents.) And according to a former friend of Ms. Johnson’s, she left Planned Parenthood after being caught sending inappropriate emails — not because she witnessed an abortion that sparked her conversion.
Nevertheless, Ms. Johnson, who now runs a group called And Then There Were None to encourage abortion clinic employees to leave their jobs, spoke on Tuesday evening of the “twirling” spine she saw on the ultrasound screen, as she watched it “succumbing to the force of the suction.” She said there was something her colleagues referred to as the “pieces of children” room at the clinic.
“I know what abortion smells like,” Ms. Johnson said at one point. “Did you know abortion even had a smell?”
The speech was as outrageous as one would expect of a woman who once said that the police would be “smart” to racially profile her biracial son and that American households should get one vote each — “In a Godly household, the husband would get the final say.”
Like many R.N.C. speeches, Ms. Johnson’s address felt like it was being delivered from a different universe than the one where last week’s Democratic convention took place. That’s not because the Democrats delivered a full-throated endorsement of reproductive rights. Despite a party platform that’s become increasingly progressive on the issue, during the D.N.C. there were only a handful of references to abortion.
In fact, the word “abortion” does not show up once in the transcripts of the four-night event — though vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris spoke of “injustice in reproductive and maternal health care.”
That omission was striking at a time when reproductive rights in America are more precarious than they’ve been in decades. The nation’s already uneven levels of abortion access have gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic, and the situation could soon deteriorate more: Earlier this summer, John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, signaled that he’d be open to dealing a fatal blow to abortion rights if he gets the right case.
No doubt the Democrats’ calculus went something like this: Come across as the sane, rational party ahead of the election. That’s the opposite of how President Trump has characterized the party, as supporters of “ripping babies straight from the mother’s womb.” (No, that is not a thing.)
Democrats surely looked at poll numbers that show that abortion and contraception policies are pretty far down the list of issues voters say they care most about heading into November, even if those numbers are significantly higher for registered Democrats. The nation is, after all, in the middle of a global pandemic, an ongoing climate crisis and a major economic downturn.
The D.N.C. organizers also were clearly focused on winning over Republicans who have become disenchanted with their party in the Trump era. That’s how a party that officially supports restoring federal funding for Planned Parenthood ended up with John Kasich — who defunded Planned Parenthood while governor of Ohio — as a convention speaker.
Strategic or not, some activists were unimpressed. The Democrats are “trying to have such a big tent that they’re forgetting that they are leaving a whole lot of us out of this conversation,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive justice activist who started a campaign during the 2016 presidential primary to encourage discussion of abortion. “They say Black women are the base of our party. Well guess who has abortions? Black women. The majority of people who have abortions are women of color.”
Republicans are leaning hard into courting white women — a reliable conservative voting bloc. That’s one reason they chose Ms. Johnson, of all the anti-abortion activists in the country, to speak at the convention.
It doesn’t hurt that she goes for broke. Ms. Johnson is on the right flank of the anti-abortion movement and has in recent years supported extreme measures like so-called heartbeat bills, which ban abortion before many women realize they’re pregnant. (Ms. Johnson once got an ultrasound in Times Square and broadcast the fetal heartbeat to passers-by.)
This matters because Mr. Trump has so far failed to deliver on his promise to evangelical voters to overturn Roe v. Wade. As Mary Ziegler, a law professor and abortion rights expert, notes, Mr. Trump “needs conservative voters to believe that there is no imminent threat to abortion rights — in other words, that the Supreme Court is not currently conservative enough” to fully overturn Roe v. Wade. But he also needs those voters to believe “that he can make it happen if he’s re-elected.”
Inviting Ms. Johnson to the R.N.C. sent a clear message: Vote for Trump, and legal abortion in America is gone — but this time, for real.