John Oliver’s Lies about Abby Johnson and Crisis Pregnancy Centers

John Oliver is a tremendously talented comedian. Unfortunately he’s also an abortion extremist and he has no intellectual honesty. Recently on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, Oliver set his sights on Crisis Pregnancy Centers. He painted a very bleak, and very inaccurate, picture of CPCs. He suggested that they’re full of nasty, dishonest people that just want to control women. Here is a breakdown of his biggest lies, spin, and deception.

#1: Oliver flagrantly, and knowingly, takes Abby Johnson out of context

Abby Johnson

Abby Johnson

This segment features two quotations from pro-life advocate Abby Johnson, speaking at a 2012 conference for Heartbeat International (it’s also worth noting that Oliver exclusively refers to her as a pro-life activist and never mentions the fact that she is also a former director of a Planned Parenthood). I interviewed Abby after Oliver’s hit piece came out, and she explained that Oliver’s producer reached out to her via email while they were writing their segment. He told her they were writing a piece on Crisis Pregnancy Centers and that he had some quotations from her that they wanted to use but that he wanted to talk to her first. Abby said he was extremely friendly on the phone and that he came off like he was listening to what she was saying. He asked her to give him context for the quotations they were using, which is particularly damning because they still used both quotations completely out of context.

Oliver sets up the first quotation by saying:

Way too often, women are being actively misled while trying to access healthcare. And CPCs seem happy to have women confuse them for abortion clinics. Just listen to Abby Johnson, an anti-abortion activist addressing a conference for one of the largest CPC organizations.

Then he gives the Abby Johnson quotation:

We want to appear neutral on the outside, The best call, the best client you ever get is one that thinks they’re walking into an abortion clinic. Okay? Those are the best clients that could ever walk in your door or call your center–the ones that think you provide abortions.

But Abby wasn’t talking about actively misleading clinics. Abby told Oliver’s producer that she has never encouraged a center to lie about what they do. Pro-life advocates think that lives are on the line so of course we’ll do everything we can while remaining moral to try to get the abortion-minded woman into the center. She has options other than abortion and we have good reason to believe abortion facilities won’t fairly present those options to her. Let’s focus on Planned Parenthood for a moment because they are the largest provider of abortions and we have the most data about them.

In the eleventh chapter of Abby’s book Unplanned (affiliate link), she talks about when she was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic and she was instructed during a budget meeting to increase revenue at her facility. As the director, she was given client goals to meet in the upcoming year. Abby recounts:

When I looked at the numbers, I did a double take. I noticed that the client goals related to family planning hadn’t changed much, but the client goals under abortion services had increased significantly. My mind started racing. Something’s got to be wrong here. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

When she asked her supervisors about this, she was told to get her priorities straight. She was told that abortion needed to be her priority because that is where the revenue was and that it was her job as the director of the clinic to find a way to increase abortions.

It isn’t random that, based on their own most recent annual report, Planned Parenthood performed 82 abortions for every adoption referral (their adoption referral numbers are up from 149 abortions for every adoption referral just four years earlier).

The purpose of Abby’s statement is to emphasize how important it is for these centers to show abortion-minded women that they aren’t just religious organizations, that they have resources and are there to help. Oliver takes this out of context to make Abby sound like she is instructing them to actively mislead clients.

Oliver sets up the second quotation from Abby by saying:

[CPCs] might point to the assistance that some centers provide to young mothers, like parenting classes and free diapers, which is great, if those women want to be mothers. Although as Abby Johnson advised CPC operators in that conference you saw earlier, that help can be surprisingly limited.

Then he gives Abby’s quotation:

If I were to open a pregnancy center, I would not have pregnancy items past six months. Are we running a charity? Are we running a place where we want women to become self-sufficient? Self-sufficient right?…Have maternity clothes, have those things available for the women while they’re pregnant, but cut them off.

Then Oliver responded:

Wow. So the basic argument there is, we’re just not in a position where we can take care of a baby forever, we don’t have the time or the resources, so we’re choosing not the make that commitment right now. To which I would say, yeah, exactly.

First, “choosing to not make that commitment right now” is an inaccurate and misleading way to describe the intentional killing of an innocent baby. Similarly, choosing to not put your resources into feeding a homeless person is awfully different than intentionally dismembering a homeless person.

Secondly, Oliver once again ripped Abby’s quotation out of context, and he knew it. Abby’s statement by itself looks like a confirmation of the common accusation that pro-life people are just “pro-birth,” that they don’t care about helping people after the baby is born. But Abby explained to his producer that these quotations were from a workshop aimed at Crisis Pregnancy Centers that were wanting to expand to becoming medical CPCs.

We know Oliver spent his entire segment specifically attacking non-medical CPCs because he said that CPCs are very careful to not cross the line of being regulated as medical providers. While it’s true that many CPCs are not trying to be medical providers, other CPCs are medical providers. Abby wasn’t talking about non-medical CPCs that provide basic things like pregnancy tests, diapers, and wipes. They were talking about medical centers doing full comprehensive women’s health care, often including annual exams for women and STI testing.

The producer asked Abby why she said they should cut women off after six months, and Abby explained to him that she was talking about full medical centers, not merely crisis pregnancy centers. It’s fine if less equipped pregnancy centers decide to provide help past six months, but her point was that medical centers should focus their resources on medical care. Ideally they should have a referral system in place so they can connect them with a different non-medical CPC for more resources.

Abby also clarified that even with regular CPCs that are not medical centers, there comes a point where they need to ask: Are they actually helping this woman or has she become dependent on them? Abby wants to break the cycle of dependency that many women have been in for their entire lives. She wants to empower these women to get them out of a dependency mindset so they can flourish.

I don’t work at Last Week Tonight, and I don’t know how their production team operates. It’s possible that John Oliver isn’t as involved in the research and writing of his show as he acts. Perhaps his producer didn’t even tell him about his conversation with Abby. I suppose it’s also possible that he is far less intelligent than I think he is, and all of the other examples of intellectual dishonesty that follows are beyond his own ability to understand. But if what Abby told me is true, then his producer’s conduct is indefensible. If Oliver fires the producer, apologizes to Abby, and admits he needs to be more involved in the writing of his scripts, I’ll withdraw this specific objection to him. I won’t hold my breath.

#2: Oliver implies that most people are pro-choice

He opens his hit piece by saying,

Pornography: some people believe it should be available and accessible without stigma, others think well, it’s not for me but it’s fine for other people in certain situations, and a few people think it should be banned completely. Oh, did I say pornography? Sorry, I meant abortion.

At first, it may seem like he’s painting an accurate picture of the spectrum of positions on abortion. He does paint a range of views, but it’s a misleading one.

Graph of Gallup poll

Graph by Jessica Burchett, based on this 2017 Gallup poll.

Based on a 2017 Gallup poll, 29% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all circumstances, 13% think it should be legal in most circumstances, 36% think it should be legal only in a few circumstances, and 18% think it should be illegal in all circumstances.1

When Oliver describes the moderate option, he acts like people who think abortion should be legal in some circumstances think that “it’s fine,” and that there are only a few that actually oppose it. But statistically many of the people who think abortion should be legal in certain circumstances still think it’s morally wrong. We know that because the same Gallup poll shows 49% of Americans think abortion is morally wrong.

It’s also important to note an ambiguity on the moderate and strong pro-life positions in the Gallup poll. The most common circumstances where even pro-life people think abortion is justified are in the case of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger. Given that most pro-life people allow for exceptions when the mother’s life is in danger, it’s important for pollsters to not just ask people if they think there should be few exceptions or no exceptions. It’s better if they ask people taking surveys to specify which exceptions they favor one at a time instead of grouping them together. Another complication comes from the fact that many pro-lifers treat the exception for the mother’s life as a given and then describe themselves as completely against abortion. That leaves us with an unanswered question: how do the people taking the poll interpret the question? How many of the 36% who think abortion should only be legal in a few circumstances are only thinking of the life of the mother as a valid exception? It’s hard to say, but the number of Americans that oppose abortion in all circumstances but the life of the mother is not the tiny number that Oliver dismissively implies it is. When Gallup last asked the question in 2006, it was 36%.

#3: Oliver treats pro-life exceptions as universal problems

There is work to be done in the crisis pregnancy center movement. There are CPCs out there that lack proper training, and even some that are willing to lie, but those are the exception, not the rule. As Abby said to the producer:

Most centers are excellent and are operating on a very high level of integrity, and some still need training. But what’s frustrating to me is that we have documented situations over and over again of the abortion industry lying and manipulating, covering up statutory rape and other crimes, and the liberal media says ‘well that’s just an isolated incident.’ But when one thing happens in the pregnancy center movement where someone is caught giving out bad information, it’s this broad brush stroke, ‘all pregnancy centers are like this.’ But you won’t do the same with abortion facilities.

Predictably, Oliver uses isolated cases to paint a picture that the whole CPC movement is deceptive. That is a lie.

#4: Oliver calls reasonable, accurate marketing “deception”

Oliver says:

[CPC’s] efforts to conceal their true intent takes many forms, starting with the name. Many CPCs have ‘choice’ in their name.

Many women who have abortions feel trapped, like they don’t have any other option than abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 73% of women cite “that she could not afford a baby now” as one of their reasons for having abortions. While CPCs don’t provide or refer for abortions, they give scientific, accurate information about the abortion options that are appropriate to the client’s stage of pregnancy. The fact that the abortion movement has co-opted the word “choice” doesn’t mean they’re the only ones that get to use it. CPCs are the ones that are offering women the resources and variety of options they need in order to make an informed choice. Highlighting that fact in the name of a clinic is good, accurate, non-deceptive marketing (though arguably it is no longer a good marketing decision because of pro-choice hit pieces like Oliver’s).

Oliver also complains about CPCs buying Google ads for keywords like abortion, and for locating themselves close to abortion facilities. There is nothing wrong with these common practices. Again, it’s just good marketing. But he sprinkles in examples of clinics that also go too far to imply that those issues are a problem with all clinics.

#5: Oliver dismisses health risks related to abortion without presenting any evidence

Oliver holds up a handbook from Heartbeat International and says:

Heartbeat International, which has 1400 affiliates in the US, has this handbook with suggested scripts, featuring some nonsense information. It suggests telling pregnant women that 35 percent of suicidal behaviors among women may be attributable to abortion, which is bull shit. It also says that abortion almost doubles the risk of breast cancer, which is also bull shit.

Despite what Oliver suggests throughout his segment, Heartbeat International didn’t just make up information. Here is a link to their fact sheet. The fourth footnote is for the claim that abortion almost doubles the risk of breast cancer. It includes articles from the International Journal of Epidemiology, the Journal of Epidemiological Community Health, the British Journal of Cancer, the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute, and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

You can also find additional research on this topic at American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. This is a particularly interesting journal entry from Dr. Joel Brind on the problems with the evidence presented by people who deny any link between abortion and breast cancer. They also have research on the mental health problems associated with abortion.

I’m not saying that these are simple questions with simple answers. The physical and mental effects of abortion on women continue to be a subject of study and scholarly debate. John Oliver said Heartbeat International gave women nonsense information. That is a lie. It is also a lie to simply dismiss these claims as “bullshit.” They might be wrong, and you’re welcome to make your case, but I guess it’s easier to just dismiss the other side and pretend they don’t have any evidence.

#6: Oliver says CPCs have evil motives

This is where Oliver goes from merely being a liar to being truly nasty. In the first of two examples, Oliver says:

The fact is, if you want fewer abortions, you should LOVE birth control. You should be filling pez dispensers with birth control pills, you should be giving condoms out to trick or treaters, and IUD earrings out as hostess gifts. Birth control should be your favorite thing in the whole world. But of course, many of these CPCs are about much more than just abortion, they’re about controlling women’s sexual behavior.

This is ugly, but if this was as far as he went, I’d give him a pass. In my thousands of in-person conversations with pro-choice people, I have heard the complaint about birth control many times. Often it isn’t even brought up in a rude way, it’s just a point of honest confusion. In their minds, obviously if we were trying to reduce abortion, we would also hand out birth control, so they react to the fact that many of us don’t by concluding that stopping abortion is just a smokescreen for a desire to control women.

What pro-choice people often don’t understand is that for most religious pro-life people, sex outside of the confines of marriage is sinful and harmful, and we don’t want to stop abortion by encouraging people to engage in another sin. Sometimes I explain this to pro-choice people by asking them:

Suppose we could put a major dent in world hunger, but in order to do that you would have to personally take part in an activity that would be devastating to the environment. For instance, imagine we had an incredibly environmentally unfriendly chemical that would significantly increase farming output but would eventually render the entire area toxic and uninhabitable. Would you be willing to personally take part in poisoning that area?

When I’ve asked this, they have always quickly come to understand what’s going on for us. We want to stop abortion, but we aren’t willing to engage in what we see as evil in order to do it.

Unfortunately, Oliver’s next quotation demonstrates that he, unlike many well-meaning pro-choice college students, is not merely confused. He is intentionally demonizing well-intentioned pro-life advocates.

Oliver introduces a clip of a priest by saying:

I don’t want to say he had a condescending view of women, but watch him describe the lengths that he would go to to lure them away from entering an abortion clinic.

The priest says:

I remember the time when they had the fence up in front of the place, they put the fence up. I decided that I would talk to women over the fence by bringing a ladder and getting on top of the ladder and talking to them over the fence. And so, of course that generated a 911 call because I was now, uh, [laughing] ‘talking down to women.’

Oliver follows the clip by saying:

Get it? I was both literally, and figuratively, talking down to them. I made it clear to them that they’re merely vessels for the purpose of giving birth and nothing else and I don’t actually even see them as full humans! That’s why what I do is funny.

It’s obvious why the priest was laughing. It’s not because he thinks it’s funny to talk down to women, but because pro-lifers are often accused of it and he was literally speaking from a ladder. Many incredible, loving pro-life people try to encourage women to not have abortions all the time, and there is nothing remotely condescending about that behavior. The snide suggestion that sidewalk advocates, many of whom are women, believe that women are just vessels for giving birth and aren’t even full humans is despicable.

It’s worth noting that that particular priest has used his position to take sexual advantage of women, but Oliver doesn’t make that point until after this bit. He is obviously making a general point about pro-life people, not just a point about this specific bad priest.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Oliver ends his segment with a skit where he just mocks Christians for the sake of mocking Christians. He and his colleague imitate southern Baptists in particular, and say various pseudo-religious things like, “Praise be, praise be,” and “Praise women being too darn emotional to make decisions about their own bodies.” They even have a bit where his colleague has cut off the ends of condoms. She thrusts her hand through one and says it “Lets you blow the Holy Spirit right on through!”

This goes beyond being smug, obnoxious, and blasphemous; this is anti-Christian bigotry. The CPC segment ends this way because John Oliver despises Christians. No fair-minded person can watch this and conclude anything else. This isn’t good-natured teasing. It comes from hate, and we know that because Oliver spent the entire segment making it perfectly clear what he thinks of Christians.

This segment is so clearly dishonest, so uncharitable, and so toxic to the national conversation that it is utterly indefensible. I know there are honest, fair-minded pro-choice people out there. They should all denounce this garbage and all garbage like it.

 

Footnotes:

  1. “Abortion,” Gallup, accessed April 16, 2018,
    http://news.gallup.com/poll/1576/abortion.aspx.

 

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The post “John Oliver’s Lies about Abby Johnson and Crisis Pregnancy Centers” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Director of Training

Timothy Brahm is the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

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