A pro-life film for such a time as this
On August 21, thousands of pro-life protestors rallied in Sydney to oppose New South Wales’ new abortion laws. On October 12, thousands of pro-life protestors in Melbourne will join the annual March For the Babies to oppose the same extreme laws that were passed in Victoria 11 years ago. And as God’s timing would have it, in between these two dates, an independent pro-life film called Unplanned will be playing in cinemas across the country. Sadly, it will go under the radar of most Australians, but it is a powerful and important film that I think every Christian should know about and consider going to see.
Screenings of Unplanned are currently being organised through the website FanForce and if you’ve noticed this film being talked about online, you might have a few questions: What’s the film about? Is it any good? How does it handle the sensitive topic of abortion? Which audience is it appropriate for?
I had the opportunity to see Unplanned twice recently and went in to the cinema with these same questions. I left deeply moved, a little disappointed, but most of all convinced that this is a film worth supporting, especially at this important time in Australia when abortion is in the public spotlight.
What’s it About?
Based on the memoir of the same name, Unplanned tells the true story of Abby Johnson, following her experiences working for eight years at Planned Parenthood, America’s largest abortion provider. Starting as a passionate volunteer, she eventually rose to become the company’s youngest ever clinic director and winner of Employee of the Year.
The film explores Abby’s sincere motivations for supporting the pro-choice cause, as well as sharing, with compassion and honesty, her own personal story of having two abortions. Through Abby’s experience, we get a unique look behind the scenes at her clinic and see the genuine friendship and camaraderie of the staff Abby worked alongside. Stories of women seeking abortion are portrayed without judgement, though clear criticism is targetted at boyfriends or fathers who push for the termination.
The story takes us through Abby’s interactions with the pro-lifers who often gathered outside the clinic. Although the prayerful “Coalition For Life” team come across as almost too squeaky clean, to its credit the film does also acknowledge the existence of the hate-filled anti-abortion protestors who are often so destructive to the pro-life message of love. Lastly, in the film’s quieter moments, it explores Abby’s close but challenging relationship with her Christian family, showing their loving concern and awkwardness over her chosen career.
A Confronting Scene
The focal point of Unplanned however, is captured by the movie tagline: “What she saw changed everything”. One day Abby was called to assist in the procedure room and witnessed for the first time an ultrasound-guided abortion of a 13-week old fetus. She watched as it reacted to the probing of the abortion instruments, before being dismembered and sucked up the catheter before her eyes.
This shocking moment was the catalyst for Abby Johnson’s amazing conversion from pro-choice to pro-life and she has since become one of America’s most outspoken and influential pro-life advocates.
Now some of you might be thinking: “SPOILER ALERT! Why are you telling us the ending before we’ve even seen the film!” Well, both Abby’s book and the film waste no time getting its message across. This scene is presented within the first 7 minutes of the film, so be prepared. Although the depiction of the fetus on the ultrasound is fairly obviously computer-generated, it is still a very confronting, uncomfortable and upsetting scene. You will not enjoy watching it, but it is an important scene and the filmmakers did an excellent job giving it the appropriate gravity.
As a little bit of movie trivia, the doctor in this scene is played by Dr Anthony Levatino, who is actually a former abortionist who personally performed over 1,200 abortions. Dr Levatino has his own dramatic pro-life conversion story (watch it here) and his presence in this scene gives it extra weight and realism. He said of this scene: “The portrayal of a live, moving fetus disappearing is very accurate. You’re watching an abortion. It’s an accurate view of what’s happening. It’s disturbing if you recognize it’s a human life.”
Abortion is Disturbing
It is also worth noting that there are a couple more graphic and uncomfortable scenes in Unplanned. They are a small percentage of the film’s run time, but confronting enough that the film was given an R rating in the US. Now, this is quite different from the R 18+ rating in Australia and is more equivalent to our MA 15+, but it is still worth noting for those who can’t cope with the sight of blood.
The Motion Picture Association of America justified their rating decision by citing “some disturbing/bloody images”. Some were shocked by this and felt it was a way of trying to suppress the film’s reach. Personally, I think it is warranted. I wouldn’t describe Unplanned as gratuitous or gory, but there are a couple of realistic bloody moments that I would not advise younger teens to see without a parent present.
In the end, the filmmakers embraced the strong rating. Chuck Konzelman, one of the co-directors said that the rating was an acknowledgement that “abortion is an act of extreme violence.” Even Abby Johnson herself responded to the rating by saying “We are pushing the boundaries of what has never been before on such a wide scale by showing America exactly what abortion is – and abortion is disturbing. It’s violent.”
Unplanned does not try to sanitise the reality of abortion or simply talk about the topic on a theoretical level. This is Abby Johnson’s testimony and as the poster says “What she saw changed everything”. In trying to tell her story with integrity, the filmmakers made the bold choice to let us see it too.
At the heart of it, that’s what this film is trying to do – help us see abortion for what it is. Unplanned reveals the humanity of those who work in abortion clinics, those who seek abortions, and most importantly, those in the womb. As Bernard Nathanson, another former abortionist turned pro-life, wrote in his book Aborting America, “Fewer women would have abortions if wombs had windows.” This film provides that window.
Unplanned is Not Unflawed
Unplanned is an important film, especially for such a time as this where, both in the US and in Australia, abortion laws are presently being hotly debated. But, is it a good film? This is a question a friend asked me the other day and I knew exactly what he was asking.
If you’re a movie fan like me, you have to admit, Christian films don’t have a great reputation. They can come across as contrived, corny or as subtle as a brick to the head. Christians can turn a blind eye to a multitude of movie sins when the film is communicating a message we care about, but our non-Christian friends don’t have reason to be so forgiving. They’ll notice the flaws, so we might as well be honest about them.
If you look at the unfavourable film reviews for Unplanned, apart from disagreeing with its pro-life message, you will find some common criticisms, mainly focussed on the scriptwriting. They point out it has an overuse of narration by its main character and at times the dialogue comes across as overly scripted and unnatural, especially when they are making a character deliver a zinger pro-life argument. I have to agree with these critiques. I think the film does better in its quieter moments when the performers are given space to act and the director “shows” rather than “tells” you what is going on.
Many critics also mentioned that the film’s antagonist, Abby’s boss Cheryl, comes across as a cartoonishly evil character. In order to make us hate her as the ultimate corporate villain, the script unfortunately gives her some unrealistic lines that do not appear in Abby’s book. For those looking for an excuse to label this pro-life film as manipulative propaganda (like Wikipedia has done) this exaggerated portrayal of the villain can be easily used to try to discredit the rest of the story. I found this especially disappointing because, apart from the character of Cheryl, I thought they did a great job at portraying characters on both sides of this debate with sensitivity, realism and nuance.
Generally, the acting is solid throughout the film. I particularly thought Ashley Bratcher, who plays Abby Johnson, gave a fantastic performance of the central character’s complex and emotional journey. Also, as an acknowledgement to a smaller character, I thought the beautiful struggle of Abby’s mother loving her daughter whilst disagreeing with her career, was wonderfully performed by Robin DeMarco.
There are also a couple of deeply moving scenes where the film really shines. The moment when the “Coalition For Life” team pray over barrels of aborted remains is very powerful, as is a scene near the end where Abby acknowledges her own two aborted children.
The Gospel in Unplanned
When critiquing the film from a Christian perspective, I think Unplanned generally does a great job at portraying Christians – both those who are immature in their faith and ones who have persevered in prayer for years. Prayer is actually a bit of a theme in the movie and there is a real encouragement for Christians to not give up praying.
There is one scene however, where the now repentant Abby is grieving over her involvement in so many abortions and she asks how it is possible that God could forgive her sin. Her husband takes a breath and I was hoping for him to answer with some reference to the gospel or even a brief mention of Jesus, but his only reply is a simple, “Because He’s God.” Now, I didn’t expect him to pull out a whiteboard and explain substitutionary atonement, but something as simple as “Because Jesus died for you” might have been enough. In a film that did not shy away from proclaiming bold truths, it did feel like this moment was a lost gospel opportunity.
That’s not to say there are no gospel themes in Unplanned. Abortion is acknowledged as a sin that should be repented of, though the message is not one of shame or rejection, but of understanding, mercy and the offer of forgiveness. You should feel free to see this film if you or someone you invite has experienced abortion first hand. It may be confronting, but it will not be condemning.
You might be surprised that even those who work in the abortion industry would get a lot out of this film. At the end credits there is mention of Abby Johnson’s ministry “And Then There Were None” that helps abortion workers transition out of the industry. Daryl Lefever, one of the film’s producers, informed me that since the film was released in the US, Abby’s ministry has had around one or two calls every day from abortion workers wanting out.
Unplanned in Australia
Unplanned is an important, powerful and timely film. It has its flaws, but considering the limited resources they had as an independent film and the opposition they faced, it is honestly a great achievement.
The film had a tiny budget of 6 million USD (compare that to Dumbo which was released on the same weekend as Unplanned with a budget of 170 million). It had no big name movie stars to draw the crowds and several major tv networks refused to show the movie trailer due to, as one network said, the “sensitive nature of the film”. Then, without warning, on the very weekend of its release, the film’s official Twitter account was mistakenly suspended and to add insult to injury, a day after the account was restored, tens of thousands of its Twitter followers had mysteriously been removed. Despite all these setbacks, due to the support of churches, pro-life groups and curious movie-goers (as well as a lot of prayer), Unplanned surprised everyone by being the 4th most successful film in America for that weekend, beaten only by “Dumbo”, “Us” and “Captain Marvel”.
Now it’s Australia’s turn to see Unplanned. It’s our opportunity to use this film to continue drawing attention to the reality of abortion and the humanity of those in the womb.
I encourage you to consider whether Unplanned would be a film that not only you, but maybe even your church can get behind. Check out the FanForce website and find a local screening that you can invite people to. You could even apply to host one yourself.
If you have older teenage kids, consider taking them to discuss the issue of abortion and combat the pro-choice messages they will be constantly hearing from our society. If you have friends or family who are unsure where they stand on this issue, Unplanned would be an interesting film for you to see together. The film doesn’t try to tackle every pro-choice argument, but many have had their assumptions or their apathy about abortion challenged after seeing it. Most of all, after considering the pros and cons I have mentioned, I recommend going to see the film yourself.
The other day I had the wonderful opportunity to contact Abby Johnson herself and ask her how she felt about her story being shown in Australian cinemas. She replied:
I am thrilled that Unplanned is coming to Australia and in many other places around the world. The impact of this film has been astounding – so many people have told me they changed their minds on abortion, that they chose life for their babies, and that they have been motivated to pray outside abortion clinics or volunteer for their local pregnancy resource center. God has worked miracles through Unplanned and I can’t wait for the people of Australia to see it.Abby Johnson
For Australian screenings, go to: https://fan-force.com/films/unplanned/
For more about the film, go to: https://www.unplannedfilm.com/
For more about Abby Johnson, go to: http://www.abbyjohnson.org/