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)