Premiering this week: “Unplanned”

Scene from film "Unplanned"
Readability

Premiering this week: "Unplanned"

The film Unplanned is com­ing to the­aters begin­ning March 29. Its related web site lets you find where the movie is show­ing in your area. I saw an advance screen­ing a few weeks ago, and I think it’s a story that deserves to be bet­ter known.

(The fol­low­ing review first appeared on my blog Leaven for the Loaf.)

This is not an unbi­ased review. I have met and been pro­foundly impressed by Abby John­son, the woman whose life and work inspired this movie. What­ever your belief about abor­tion – espe­cially if “trust women” is your vis­ceral response to pro-​life mes­sages – take the time to watch Abby’s story. This drama­ti­za­tion might seem unbe­liev­able, but it is faith­ful to the true story.

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.

John­son was not naïve 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.

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.

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.

(Fea­tured image in this post cour­tesy of unplanned​film​.com)

Ellen Kolb lives in New Hamp­shire and blogs about the life issues at Leaven for the Loaf.

Ellen Kolb

The film Unplanned is coming to theaters beginning March 29. Its related web site lets you find where the movie is showing in your area. I saw an advance screening a few weeks ago, and I think it’s a story that deserves to be better known.

(The following review first appeared on my blog Leaven for the Loaf.)

This is not an unbiased review. I have met and been profoundly impressed by Abby Johnson, the woman whose life and work inspired this movie. Whatever your belief about abortion – especially if “trust women” is your visceral response to pro-life messages – take the time to watch Abby’s story. This dramatization might seem unbelievable, but it is faithful to the true story.

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.

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.

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.

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 Talkingavailable 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.

(Featured image in this post courtesy of unplannedfilm.com)

Ellen Kolb lives in New Hampshire and blogs about the life issues at Leaven for the Loaf.

Ellen Kolb