A movie review of
Directors: Chuck Kozelman, Cary Solomon
(Pure Flix Entertainment, 2019)
Content Warning: This article or pages it links to includes graphic descriptions of various types of abortion procedures and may not be suitable for some people.
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During the fall of 2018, a public and brutal Supreme Court nomination battle saw Judge Brett Kavanaugh assume the seat left vacant by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the highest court’s perennial swing vote, establishing an assumed conservative majority. Those who defend abortion as a fundamental right fear that the permissive legal environment created through Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance. States are declaring sides in the abortion battle with New York, Virginia, Illinois, and others shoring up permissive abortion laws similar to the national Roe environment, while Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, and others are seeking to restrict the practice of abortion. Actress Alyssa Milano recently headed a list of celebrities threatening to boycott the state of Georgia’s film industry in response to their Fetal Heartbeat Bill,1 as heated Twitter wars erupted daily. The film Unplanned was released in the midst of all of this division surrounding abortion with accompanying high expectations about how it could affect this landscape.
Christian filmmaker Jason Jones declares Unplanned the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the abortion movement.2 Former Bryan, Texas, Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson, whose life story on which the film is based, has said anyone who sees this movie can no longer claim that they don’t know what abortion is.3 Pro-life and Christian organizations purchased tickets for entire theaters and promoted viewings as something more important than a mere movie experience. It is a moment of cultural shift.
Planned Parenthood has countered that the film’s portrayal of its operations as an abortion provider is deceitful. Film critic Owen Gleiberman of Variety magazine dismissed Unplanned as propaganda that “preaches to the pro-life choir, and it does so by making a case against abortion that’s absolutist and extreme, at certain points twisting ‘facts’ into a narrative of conspiracy.”4 Even some Christians have questioned whether this type of movie, whatever that thinly veiled insult means, can have an impact on pro-choice believers.
Television networks pointed to the highly charged political environment around the issue of abortion as the reason to justify their refusal to sell advertising to the producers of Unplanned, with only Fox News and CBN being willing to accept paid advertisements for the film. Networks including the Hallmark channel, HGTV, Lifetime, and others also refused to sell ads for the film, saying they wanted to avoid the sensitive subject matter. The producers tried and failed to secure the license to use a list of specific songs for the film’s soundtrack from Disney, Universal Music, Sony, and Round Hill Music. A Hollywood Reporter article quotes the producers of Unplanned as saying they had money to spend, but no one would take it.5 The fact that it is a movie about abortion created challenges simply not shared by other productions.
There is another fundamental difference between this Christian movie and others. Early in the film, a suction curettage abortion is witnessed by both the main character and the audience. The audience sees the evacuated pieces of an aborted human fetus dropping in medical waste receptacles, as the dismemberment of the fetus is displayed on the ultrasound screen. This is the moment that Abby Johnson claims catalyzed her personal transformation and led her to leave Planned Parenthood and seek help from Shawn Carney, the cofounder of 40 Days for Life, a pro-life outreach organization.
From this point in the film, many of the usual criticisms of Christian movies and Unplanned’s low production value fade in importance. The next scene takes the audience back eight years before the opening abortion scene and retraces the series of events that led to that moment in the procedure room. The following series of events, depicting Abby’s journey as a college student Planned Parenthood volunteer to clinic director, offers insight into how an abortion facility operates. This film knows why it exists, and it never flinches. Because the narrative centers on Abby Johnson’s story, it gives the characters and their relationships a plausibility often missing in other Christian films, but the power of this movie is its desire to show abortion to a nation conditioned to ignore it. Indeed, it is precisely that commitment that landed Unplanned an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. The producers never considered changing their film to get a more audience-friendly rating.
I agree with one statement in Gleiberman’s Variety review; actress Ashley Bratcher is appealing in the lead, which helps the movie believably navigate Abby’s story to show the audience the inside operation of an abortion provider. Her story exposes viewers to a chemical abortion (RU-486), a perforated uterus during the course of a surgical abortion, the Products of Conception (POC) room where the fetal body parts are accounted for, and much more. The inner workings of a Planned Parenthood clinic are laid bare.
The film portrays the technicians and nurses who work in Planned Parenthood largely as people with good intentions trying to do good by helping provide women with reproductive services. The sole exception is Abby Johnson’s mentor, former clinic director Cheryl (portrayed by Robia Scott), who ruthlessly defends the corporate interests of Planned Parenthood. Other than portraying Abby Johnson’s two abortions, the film does not really explore the motivations of women seeking abortions at the Bryan, Texas, Planned Parenthood clinic. Women are shown struggling to make a decision while feeling pressure from others (including a parent) who actively convince them that an abortion is the best course of action for their pregnancy. The story shows only one woman as indifferent and callous about getting an abortion as she coolly dismisses her mother crying at the fence begging her not to go through with it. This comports well with the real Abby Johnson’s approach to pro-life work since leaving Planned Parenthood. She abhors the demonization of both the people working in abortion facilities and the women who seek their services.
If a strength of the movie is its focus on Abby Johnson’s story, then it is only fair to mention there are pro-choice critics who claim her story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Critics question Abby’s motivation for leaving Planned Parenthood, and whether she actually witnessed an ultrasound-guided abortion or more likely that her professional life with Planned Parenthood was coming to an end for reasons unrelated to her moral and spiritual change of heart. Critics raise questions about the timeline Johnson offers, because she claims to have been internally convinced that her work at Planned Parenthood was evil while still giving an interview on their behalf criticizing the pro-life advocates already working to help her. Johnson answers this charge by saying she kept up appearances while she sorted things out for her family’s protection.
In his article about Abby Johnson, journalist Nate Blakeslee of Texas Monthly wrote that no ultrasound-guided abortions were performed on the day in question, a claim he says is supported by the Induced Abortion Report Forms filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services. He suggests this means the incident of watching the ultrasound-guided abortion could not have happened in the manner Johnson describes.6 However, another Texas journalist critical of Johnson’s story, Saul Elbein of the Texas Observer, wrote a piece quoting a former friend of Johnson and former Planned Parenthood employee who said Johnson talked to her about witnessing the ultrasound-guided procedure. She claims Johnson thought it was exciting.7 Two independent critics of Johnson uncover conflicting testimony regarding evidence that the incident never happened, and that she talked about seeing it but wasn’t bothered by it. Johnson has never waivered from her original story. She maintains that if the records do not support her version of the events, then Planned Parenthood altered the records.
Any question of Johnson’s complete veracity about her conversion fails to undermine the greatest strength of the movie, which is that it offers an honest, unflinching look at abortion in the United States. The most affective claims of the film can be verified independent of Johnson’s story. Suction D and C abortion and RU-486 chemical abortions are the two manners of performing abortions early in pregnancy, and neither one of them is pretty.8 There is sufficient evidence that Johnson’s experience of violent cramping and pain with the RU-486 chemical abortion (in my opinion, the most powerful and disturbing scene in the film) is neither unique to Johnson nor rare.9 Her description to her husband of a procedure used to perform late-term abortions was accurate and, quite frankly, the least gruesome option used by abortion providers at that stage of development. The POC room is real and necessary, as any failure to account for all body parts of the aborted human fetus could result in a deadly infection for the woman. Abortion providers offer corroborating testimony on how the price of abortion increases as the fetal development advances.10 Women do still suffer from perforated uteruses during abortion procedures,11 and, if the Kermit Gosnell case12 taught us anything, it was that medical professionals sympathetic to the pro-choice position will cover up problems created in abortion facilities to protect abortion from further criticism. All of these powerful aspects of this movie can be verified as happening, the truth of which is in no way tied to Johnson’s character.
The right or wrong of abortion hinges on the answer to the question “What is the unborn?” That is an objective question answered through the science of embryology and moral philosophy. But abortion is also a deeply personal, emotional, and spiritual issue. Abby Johnson, as portrayed by Ashley Bratcher, continually reminds the viewer of this throughout the movie. She seeks her own abortions because she doesn’t want to be operantly tied to an ex-husband who cruelly betrayed her. The technicians and abortion providers are her friends who show her real loyalty while she works with them, then later side with Planned Parenthood against her. She struggles with the disapproval of her pro-life husband and parents. She lies to her daughter to cover up why she has blood on her shoes. Abby believes that assisting women to get abortions is morally laudatory and then crumbles under the weight of an all-consuming guilt when she changes her mind about the nature of abortion. She discovers this guilt can be reconciled only through God’s forgiveness.
A powerful example of the film’s ability to empathize with all sides is demonstrated when a date with her husband is interrupted with a television news story that late-term abortionist George Tiller was murdered.13 The film, the story, and Abby all decry the murdering of a man with his family in his church while also showing the fear that abortion workers experienced that day. Hateful, violent, and fear-inducing actions ought to be unthinkable to those Christians who defend the full intrinsic dignity of all human life.
The United States is a nation divided on the issue of abortion, and sometimes violently so. Abby Johnson, as portrayed in the movie, is a woman whose story is equally divided and complicated. She is ultimately driven to the conclusion that in spite of her former choices, abortion is morally wrong, and her life must reflect that truth going forward.
Unplanned is far from a perfect film. It has clunky dialogue and two cringe-inducing tone-deaf moments, one in which Abby’s husband jokes about punching a woman in the face and another where an inspirational song plays while Planned Parenthood staff help as many women as possible get abortions before a hurricane hits the area. That said, it is a brave movie. The easiest decision is to say nothing about abortion, and to do nothing. In this sharply polarized climate, entering into the fray about abortion makes one a target. These producers could have made a standard, bland movie to please their target audience. They chose to try to make a difference. They showed up. That takes courage.
Unplanned shows abortion. It offers important information within the context of a story that is interesting enough to carry the audience to the end of the film. However others parse the details of Abby Johnson’s real-life moment of conversion, the movie version of it is a surprisingly watchable mix of elements that is certain to get people thinking and talking about abortion. —Jay Watts
Jay Watts is the founder and president of Merely Human Ministries, INC., an organization committed to equipping Christians and people who hold pro-life views to graciously defend the intrinsic dignity of all human life in a positive and gospel-focused manner.
- House Bill 481, https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/ga-fetal-heartbeat.pdf.
- MovietoMovement, “Unplanned: The ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of Abortion,” YouTube video, March 31, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjQYJZe_IA4&fbclid=IwAR29V1UELb25HMQ76sXVwgfDGwd5V5Df4dCWxhxv_YxB_5BjxWZdK8bO0yg.
- Abby Johnson, “Abby Johnson: Unplanned Is My Story and You Can’t Unsee it,” Fox News, March 30, 2019, https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/abby-johnson-unplanned-is-my-story-and-you-cant-unsee-it?fbclid=IwAR3YpMxwUUPtbiLWfOcdESFUNk5qBpakIHJlAgXHhe_6urhZESbGYcjO7Wg.
- Owen Gleiberman, “Film Review: ‘Unplanned,’” Variety, March 29, 2019, https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/unplanned-review-1203175761/.
- Paul Bond, “TV Networks Reject Ads for Anti-abortion Movie,” The Hollywood Reporter, March 29, 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/networks-reject-ads-anti-abortion-movie-unplanned-1197928?fbclid=IwAR3PnVar0oXIdcCbzXlG4fdk721fmQDZOw-S3wBj0JHQYrqRuyXNC0JTeiE.
- Nate Blakeslee, “The Convert,” Texas Monthly, January 20, 2013, https://www.texasmonthly.com/politics/the-convert/.
- Saul Elbein, “Conversion Story,” The Texas Observer, January 28, 2010, https://www.texasobserver.org/conversion-story/.
- “1st Trimester Surgical Abortion: Suction (Aspiration) D & C,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5THDmys8z30.
- See “Mifreprex RU486,”https://www.rxlist.com/mifeprex-ru486-side-effects-drug-center.htm#overview; Sarah, “Abortion Pill Was ‘Most Painful Experience of My Life,” Clinic Quotes, https://clinicquotes.com/abortion-pill-was-most-painful-experience-of-my-life/; Briana, “No Longer Secret,” http://www.silentnomoreawareness.org/testimonies/testimony.aspx?ID=3473.
- Theresa Fisher, “How Much Does an Abortion Cost? Well, from $0 to $3,275,” Clear Health Costs, June 19, 2014, https://clearhealthcosts.com/blog/2014/06/much-abortion-cost-draft-theresas/.
- “Perforation of the Uterus,” I Live! Ok! https://iliveok.com/health/perforation-uterus_77368i15953.html.
- Sarah Kliff, “The Gosnell Case: Here’s What You Need to Know,” Washington Post, April 15, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/04/15/the-gosnell-case-heres-what-you-need-to-know/?utm_term=.664de1d423a3.
- Joe Stumpe and Monica Davey, “Abortion Doctor Shot to Death in Kansas Church,” New York Times, May 31, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/us/01tiller.html.