Unplanned: Can Its Truth Reach Those Who Need It?

I hear that Unplanned, the movie that recounts Abby Johnson‘s conversion from Planned Parenthood clinic director of the year to pro-life activist, is under a media blackout, but you’d never know it from my newsfeed.  I’d been hearing about it from all my Catholic pro-life friends for weeks before it premiered, and I had no interest in seeing it.

But my next door neighbor and dear friend talked me into going with her and I’m glad I did.  I can’t really say I enjoyed it because of the subject matter, but the movie held my attention.  I was impressed and I wasn’t really expecting to be.

The irony that it’s legal for a 17-year-old to have an abortion without a parent’s consent but not to watch one simulated on screen is not lost on me, but even so I wouldn’t take my own teenagers to this movie.  I believe the R rating is justified and I had to avert my eyes more than once.

That’s not to suggest that Unplanned‘s gore is gratuitous.  As Abby herself says to her husband when she arrives home in blood-spattered sneakers, “Nobody ever said that abortion is pretty.”  The scenes were appropriate and effective within the context of the story, although the aftermath of Abby’s at-home chemical abortion probably could have been cut shorter.

Reading the above, you might assume that Unplanned is just a moving-picture version of those awful graphic photos with which over-the-top activists like to assault unsuspecting bystanders.  On the contrary, the film is surprisingly nuanced.  Even as an unapologetic pro-choice clinic director, Abby is a sympathetic character, and so are the other women who work with her (the obvious exception is her villainous, money-grubbing boss: “Non-profit is a tax status, not a business model.”).  They truly believe the work they do helps women, and Abby sees the real mission of her clinic as providing healthcare and resources to prevent unplanned pregnancies and, by extension, abortions.

I was shocked and then thrilled to see some pro-life protesters who were decidedly unsympathetic, screaming at women, calling them murderers, waving aborted baby pictures at them.  It was honest of the movie to confront this abusive behavior head on, and to use the prayerful, kind protesters to rebut it and to demonstrate throughout the movie the importance of dialogue and respect and finding common ground.

While Unplanned left me with a mostly positive impression, I do have two criticisms.  And while that may not seem like much, I fear that they are quite damaging to the film’s potential to change the minds and hearts of abortion rights supporters.

At the very beginning of the movie, we get a disclaimer: Based on a true story.  I know lots of movies begin that way.  I know translating events from a book to film requires a certain amount of dramatic licenses.  Still, this immediately called every event into question for me.  I had to wonder what exactly was changed? What exactly was not strictly true? And while there is Truth to be found even in completely fictional stories, if I were a skeptical pro-choice Planned Parenthood fan watching this movie, I would take the disclaimer as license to question–even discount–everything I saw.

Even worse was the confrontation between Abby and her former boss, Cheryl, just after Abby makes her debut into the world of sidewalk counseling outside the fence of the very clinic she once ran.  As a way of intimidating Abby with the power and influence of Planned Parenthood, Cheryl brags, “We’ve got Soros, Gates, Buffet . . . ”

Maybe Cheryl really said those exact words in real life, although it didn’t sound to me like anything a real person would say, but I was immediately pulled right out of the movie, cringing inwardly as I imagined how a pro-choice viewer would react to the name-dropping of George Soros in particular.  Don’t comment and tell me how much money Soros donates to Planned Parenthood.  I am sure he does and you don’t have to convince me, but he’s also constantly accused of being involved in various “liberal conspiracies” by far right wing types, and including this here will make some viewers dismiss the entirety of the movie.

Which leads me to the big question I was left with after watching Unplanned:  Who is the movie for?  I can see it as a vehicle for energizing those who are already against abortion, or perhaps as a recruitment tool for 40 Days for Life.  I can see it providing topics for discussion among pro-lifers.  But even if we can get pro-choice people into the theatre to watch, because of the foregoing I am not sure I can see it changing their minds about abortion or Planned Parenthood; and it’s a shame that reservations about the truth of events in a movie might obscure the Truth about abortion.

6 thoughts on “Unplanned: Can Its Truth Reach Those Who Need It?

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I actually have a piece planned in my head, if I can ever find time to sit at the computer and get it out. But, I appreciated your thoughts and review on the matter. I went in with no expectations, and came out just praising God for His mercy… available for *all* of us! For me, personally, that transcended above the rest of the pro-life/pro-choice topics.

    And, glad to see I wasn’t the only one to cringe at the naming of names. Pretty sure it “had to be done,” but that was perhaps the one scene that felt off in that boss’ angry words. Oh, I also agreed they could have cut the chemical abortion scene a little in length.

    1. lesliewp

      Thanks, Anni. I’ve read some secular views and they all mention that scene, confirming my fears. You are absolutely right about the mercy aspect though. There were definitely parts of the movie that were incredibly moving and the scene of Abby crying over her guilt was one of them.

  2. Elena

    This is the most honest, balanced review I have read yet. I haven’t seen it yet, and missed two opportunities to see it for free.
    I would echo your inquiry though, “who is this movie for?” I am also curious about how the fervor around the movie can be channelled to encourage people to fight for social changes in the way we approach human sexuality so unplanned pregnancies would be obsolete.

    I think that on an unconscious level, we condition children. We condition girls to be girly, we give them dolls to train them to be mothers, and play kitchens to practice being housewives. We condition boys to be builders, warriors and protectors. We plant broken seeds that these are our highest purposes, and when we fall short, we overly assert our most basic instincts. If we could, as a society, make these characteristics secondary or tertiary to the aspiration to be an integrated, whole person with dignity, -rather than solely male or female–I think people would be less likely to get into the situations that lead them to the clinic steps.

    1. lesliewp

      Thank you for your kind words. Your commentary is thoughtful. I agree with you that if we want abortion to be unthinkable, we have to start early and we have to think more broadly than just making it illegal.

  3. Great hearing your thoughts on this, Leslie! Some good points. I know some people would question any story like this, and I hope they go read her story for themselves – there’s so much more to it. I agree it’s helpful to refrain from name dropping too, and wonder what went into the decision to include that. I mean, those people *do* support Planned Parenthood, but I get how it might be off-putting to some.

    I honestly personally thought the graphic nature was incredibly toned down. I was wondering how it would be. . . in reality she hemorrhaged at home during her chemical abortion and almost died. I appreciated how it all seemed to be portrayed sensitively, but it’s still I’m sure too much for many people.

    Anyway, I’ve been really surprised to hear that a lot of workers at PP have contacted Abby’s organization after seeing this movie for help getting out of the industry – almost 100 last I heard. And I’ve heard of people changing their minds after seeing it too. I was honestly underwhelmed overall with it, but am so glad to hear of the good that’s already come!

    1. lesliewp

      Thank you so much, Laura, for your thoughtful comments. I am thrilled that the movie has borne some food fruits despite some of the doubts I’ve had. Anything that gets people talking instead of yelling/arguing is positive, I think.

      As for the graphic stuff, she said herself in the movie that abortion isn’t pretty. But even toned down I found those parts hard to watch and wouldn’t want my sensitive 14-year-old to watch. The friend I went with decided she would wait and have her kids watch it at home so she could fast-forward through the worst parts.

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