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.