Review: “Unplanned”

This is not an unbiased review. I have met and been profoundly impressed by the woman who inspired this movie. I’ll say this much, in case one paragraph is all you have time for: Unplanned is worth viewing. Whatever your belief about abortion – especially if “trust women” is your visceral response to pro-life messages – take the time to watch Abby Johnson’s story. Trust her. This dramatization of her book of the same name might seem unbelievable, but it is faithful to the true story.

The film’s R rating is a puzzler. Violence is apparently the issue, which is odd in a world where an ad for a television show about zombies is more violent than anything in this movie.

About ten years ago, Johnson quit a Planned Parenthood job she had once loved and at which she had excelled. She had no clear idea of what was to come next. What she was certain about was that her commitment to women’s health and her job at PP were no longer in sync. Abortion had become a bottom-line concern for her agency even as her own understanding of abortion had evolved.

At the same time, over a period of many months, past the barrier of a tall fence, the sidewalk outside Johnson’s PP facility was the scene of peaceful prayer by people committed to public witness to the value of life. (This was the first location of what later became 40 Days for Life, now a twice-yearly worldwide pro-life event.) They slowly built relationships by engaging in conversations with the workers at the clinic whenever they could. They offered assistance to women willing to consider alternatives to abortion. They were undeterred by the occasional spray from sprinklers on the clinic’s property, set off to discourage their presence.

Pro-life prayer outside abortion clinic
Scene of a 40 Days for Life campaign, from “Unplanned.”

Johnson was not naive about abortion, having had two of her own. Her facility provided abortions in the name of “health care.” While her husband and parents were pro-life and uncomfortable with her work, she deliberately chose not only to work at Planned Parenthood but to rise to the level of facility manager. So what happened?

One little thing after another over a long period, a word here, an observation there, along with prayers from people she barely knew, came together for Johnson one day. She was asked to assist at an ultrasound-guided abortion. As the film’s tag line says, what she saw changed everything for her. The humanity of the preborn child, no less than the humanity of the woman undergoing the abortion, hit her with full force.

Scene from movie "Unplanned"
The fateful sonogram and the “aha” moment. Photo from unplannedfilm.com.

The people praying outside her clinic gave her a place to land and catch her breath. Eventually, she joined them at the fence.

To this day, years later, the real-life Abby Johnson is calling on people to pray outside clinics. “Abortions aren’t happening in the halls of Congress,” she likes to say.

I wish the film had more room for Johnson’s more recent work: she founded an organization called And Then There Were None, dedicated to abortion workers seeking to leave the abortion industry. She and the team working with her have helped about 500 people make the transition away from abortion and toward life-affirming work.

Stories told in broad, bold strokes don’t always translate well to film. A pair of experienced filmmakers, Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman (God’s Not Dead)  nonetheless took on the job with Unplanned. The film is as blunt and forthright as the woman whose story it relates.

Abby, as played by Ashley Bratcher, stands out in such sharp relief that the supporting characters in some scenes are overshadowed. One exception is Robia Scott, in the role of a Planned Parenthood supervisor ferociously protective of abortion as an integral part of her organization’s mission.

Robia Scott in "Unplanned"
Actress Robia Scott as a Planned Parenthood supervisory staffer, from “Unplanned.”

Planned Parenthood does not come off well in this story. Since leaving PP, Abby Johnson has been outspokenly critical of the organization and its financial reliance on abortion. Her own experience led her to conclude that women’s health was not PP’s core value. As anyone can discover who has examined Planned Parenthood and its influence on public policy, PP is the largest abortion provider in the nation, with the help of about half a billion dollars annually in taxpayer funding.

Two scenes may be responsible for the film’s R rating. Had the directors left them out, they would have left inexplicable holes in the story.

The first is the opening scene, showing the a-ha moment that drove Abby Johnson from her job. A grainy image on a sonogram screen (simulated but not exaggerated by special effects) shows what happens during a suction abortion.

The second scene is more extended and difficult to watch. One of Johnson’s abortions was “medical,” a sanitized term for a chemical abortion induced with drugs and completed at home. The counseling Johnson received did not prepare her for the pain and protracted hemorrhaging she experienced at home, alone, with no one from the clinic there to help her.

But an R rating? Why would anyone set up a barrier between a teen and Abby Johnson’s story? Not to protect the teen, that’s for sure.

I won’t dodge the inevitable comparison between Unplanned and the recent Gosnell movie. Gosnell was in essence a police procedural about horrific crimes, and its power was due in part to its understated tone. There is nothing understated about Unplanned. It’s personal. It’s the story of a woman with vivid memories, passionate commitments, and dramatic experiences. The mood is urgency. There’s no room for subtlety.

As the most fully-realized character in the story, Abby has to be just as believable as a college student as she is as a clinic director and later an ex-director. We have to stick around after that startling early scene to find out how she got from point A to such a distant point B. In portraying her, in persuading us to wonder what’s next, Ashley Bratcher carries the film.

Unplanned is such a cause célèbre among pro-life activists that people who consider abortion to be a facet of health care might be put off from seeing it. Go anyway. Something might strike a chord.

There’s no need to encourage viewing by the legions of people who have already been influenced by Abby Johnson’s books and activism. They’re already in line to see the movie, and they’ve probably already read Johnson’s books. (Look up Unplanned and The Walls Are Talking, available in print and as e-books.)

What can Unplanned offer a wider audience? Something they won’t find on any other screen: a chance to learn about Abby Johnson, who is a true American original; an invitation to walk with her on part of her still-unfolding journey; and a challenge to trust her and her witness to the value of all human life.

(All images in this post courtesy of unplannedfilm.com)

Abby Johnson’s Story “Unplanned” in Theaters March 2019

Unplanned coverThe first book I ever bought when I acquired an e-reader was Unplanned by Abby Johnson. I had never heard of her before. I knew that the book was by an ex-Planned Parenthood worker, and I’d never met such a person, so I thought I might have something to learn by reading her book.

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Abby’s story forced a course correction on the work I’d been doing my entire adult life. If not a correction, then an expansion. I had known abortion workers only from public hearings and press conferences. I’d certainly never known one who had left the industry.

My horizons have been expanded since the book was published in 2010. Unplanned nudged me out of my comfort zone.

Unplanned has been made into a movie, and it’ll be released in theaters next month, March 2019. I’m looking forward to it. Here’s the official trailer.

This brings to mind the first time I met Abby, when she spoke at Dartmouth College a few years ago. Recall her words:“What’s your standing appointment?”

Recommended Viewing: “Desperate Measures”

Not long after Fr. Imbarrato paid a visit to my area and spoke about the need for “decisive strategies” for pro-life activists, I read about his arrest for a sit-in at an abortion facility. Not on the sidewalk – but in the facility itself. Thirty years ago, I would have admired that.

Thirty years ago, I hadn’t met any former abortion workers.

I read Abby Johnson’s Unplanned in 2010, and later met and listened to her. I met Catherine Adair in 2011. These women told me about how, when they were working at Planned Parenthood, the actions and words of some pro-life activists actually increased the sense of solidarity among the clinic workers and the fear among clients. They forced me to see activism differently.

Please watch this 20-minute video from Sidewalk Advocates for Life. Abby and Catherine are both featured. Entitled “Desperate Measures,” the video is a direct response to recent sit-ins and “rescues.” The message is don’t do it – and here’s the better way to carry out peaceful pro-life witness. 

From ATTWN: Sidewalk Advocacy, Through the Eyes of the Workers

And Then There Were None has just released its latest short video, and you’re encouraged to share it on whatever platforms you use. Here, a few former abortion industry workers share their thoughts on what pro-life witness looked like to them from inside their clinics. Some approaches were more effective than others, which is no surprise.

“We Love Them Out”: 5 Good Minutes With Meagan and Laura of And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None was founded by Abby Johnson in 2012, and in five years, hundreds of abortion-facility workers have come through ATTWN’s assistance program. All have left the abortion industry, with help from the only organization dedicated to offering spiritual and material support for such a decision.

How?

“We love them out.” That’s from Laura Ricketts of ATTWN, who with Meagan Weber represented the group at an exhibit table at the 2017 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. They love their work, and it shows. They kindly and quickly agreed to an impromptu interview with me, which I found more constructive than anything happening on the main stage.

How do you get someone who’s doing abortion work to approach you?

Laura: The short answer is love. We love them out. The longer answer is we have several initiatives that we follow through on, including sending handwritten cards into the abortion clinics to reach out to the workers.  We do a mailing of postcards that have our information inviting them to look us up, letting them know that they can quit, we can help. Sometimes we send flowers to the clinic. If there’s a situation that happens in a community, something specific surrounding that clinic, whether it’s something horrible that might have happened with a patient, or whether there are some unkind – well-meaning, but unkind – pro-life people on the sidewalk, we will send an apology into that clinic and say “I’m sorry.”

How many people have been assisted by ATTWN?

Meagan: To date since we were founded in 2012, we’ve received over 380 workers into our assistance program. That includes seven full-time abortion-providing doctors. We’ve transitioned them all out of the industry into life-affirming work and hope & healing in Christ.

What do well-meaning people do that makes your job harder?

Meagan: Graphic imagery. Inflammatory language such as abortion mill, abortuary, murderers – I mean, yes, abortion is an act that is complicit with murder. But who comes to Jesus Christ because you’re saying “you’re a dirty rotten sinner”? Same concept. We want to affirm their value as a human being, uniquely and distinctly created by God first and foremost. I’d also say trespassing on property [doesn’t help]. We have to flip that and say if we had a bunch of Planned Parenthood employees come into our pregnancy centers and go to the waiting room, [they’d be] violating the privacy of women who are seeking our services. And then they would be telling them “they’re lying to you, They’re not going to give you truthful information about your pregnancy and your options, and it’s your right to have an abortion…” We would never tolerate that happening. So we need to make sure we’re not doing that to them. If we’re truly concerned for the woman who goes into the clinic, who did not receive our information on the sidewalk, we should wait for her, be there for her on the way out.

Laura: Creating an environment around the clinic that feels unsafe or hostile is going to drive the women into the clinic for their abortions faster. And it’s also going to make the workers inside the clinic very distrustful of people who do call themselves pro-life who are scaring them a little bit.

Learn more about And Then There Were None at prolove.com and abortionworker.com and on Facebook. Learn more about Laura’s own work as a birth and bereavement doula at filumenabirth.com, and about Meagan at her Facebook page.