When Is a Movie Not Just a Movie? When It’s About Planned Parenthood
DIRECTED BY CHUCK KONZELMAN & CARY SOLOMON/2019
Is there any more potent symbol of the culture wars than Planned Parenthood? Courageous defender of the rights of women, or ruthless slaughterer of the unborn – what Planned Parenthood actually is and does and stands for is hard to see through the fog of rhetoric. Whether one supports Planned Parenthood or wants to see the organization defunded and left as a smoldering pile of rubble is a lazy litmus test for larger issues, which makes reviewing a movie about Planned Parenthood, ostensibly based on a true story, a fraught enterprise.
Since Unplanned is not just a movie but a landmine, this is not just a review. I’ve been looking for reviews of Unplanned, and they don’t really exist. Oh, there are plenty of pieces about the movie coming from both sides of the abortion debate – but precious few that seem like more than propaganda. And who am I to think I can do better? I’ve got my own biases, too, don’t I? For the sake of keeping myself honest I want to be more candid than usual about where I was coming from when I watched Unplanned. Then maybe – maybe! – I’ll be able to give a fair response to the movie itself.
Firstly, to be blunt, despite being a Christian I’m not a fan of the “Christian” film industry. Unplanned was produced by Pure Flix – an ironic name, given the R-rating this movie elicited. I checked their website and found this statement at the top of the “About” page: Pure Flix is a Christian movie studio that produces, distributes, and acquires Christ centered movies. Our VISION is to influence the global culture for Christ through media. Our MISSION is to be the world leader in producing and distributing faith and family media. Since day one, we continue to strive to make a difference for His name.
Well, there ya go. That’s a good explanation of my problem with much of the Christian film industry. Pure Flix is all about “influencing the culture”, rather than producing great art because art is a gift and has inherent value. And frankly, that utilitarian approach to film making shows. It always shows.
But I was invited to a screening of Unplanned (sponsored by a number of pro-life organizations) by a friend, and I didn’t want to go into it with preconceived notions. I prayed – truly, I did – before the movie started that I would watch with an open heart and mind, that I would give it the same respectful viewing I try to give to all movies.
And….there were actually some good things about it. Planned Parenthood supporters, DON’T LEAVE YET! There were also some terrible things about it – pro-life friends, HANG IN THERE! But the real puzzle when discussing this movie is that I don’t know where the truth lies.
Unplanned is based on a memoir by Abby Johnson. Johnson started volunteering at a Bryan, Texas, Planned Parenthood clinic as a college student and worked her way up to clinic director during her 8 years with the clinic. The clinic even named her employee of the year in 2008. Johnson resigned from Planned Parenthood in 2009 after, according to her account, witnessing the ultrasound abortion of a 13 week fetus. Disturbed by what she had seen, Johnson contacted a local pro life group within days and has since become one of the most high profile, vocal, and active anti-abortion activists in the country. When state legislatures debate abortion law, there’s a good chance Abby Johnson will be testifying. Her background makes her a prize figure for the pro life community, but significant details of her story are disputed by national Planned Parenthood and others attached to the Bryan clinic. Records from the Texas Department of Health, for example, show no such 13-week abortion performed on the date Johnson specifies.
How one reacts to Unplanned hinges partly on whether you take Johnson’s story at face value. I am not equipped to comment on abortion procedures, or what an ultrasound guided abortion at 13 weeks looks like, or how traumatic an RU486 abortion would be (also depicted in the film). I am agnostic on whether those details are correct, and the debate around abortion is so inflamed that I find it difficult to trust any “expert” on any side of the issue to tell me the full truth.
But if I accept the basic narrative of Unplanned – even on my usual principle of trying to evaluate a film first on the filmmaker’s terms – the movie presents other problems. The clinic director for whom Abby first works, Cheryl, played by Robia Scott (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is a fiendish archetype. A sleekly dressed dragon-woman who has no life outside work, she is assigned the film’s task of communicating that Planned Parenthood is virulently anti-child and concerned only with profit. When the happily married Abby finds herself pregnant, Cheryl’s response is to offer to “take care of that for you”, and she repeatedly harangues Abby thereafter for having a child. Cheryl also gives orders that all of the clinic directors under her authority double their abortions for the sake of bringing in more money. When Abby balks at this demand, Cheryl tells her that just as restaurants make their profits off of cheap sides like “fries and soda”, “Abortions are our fries and soda.”
“Really?” I found myself muttering as I watched Robia Scott sneer and hiss. “This cartoon villain is supposed to be convincing?” I felt similarly about the callous abortion doctor and the clinic staff member who counts a wad of cash as she sends women on their way with their abortifacients.
Oddly enough, this leads me to mention a point in the film’s favor: most of the clinic staff are portrayed as normal, decent, friendly women – not monsters. Even this aspect of the story, though, is skewed by the eye of the beholder. Late in Johnson’s pregnancy, at the end of a work day, her coworkers throw a baby shower for her in the clinic lobby. The voice over narration cites the number of pregnancies terminated that day, obviously for ironic effect, and it worked on the audience around me. I saw women shake their heads at what – I can only assume – they saw as the cognitive dissonance between providing abortions and giving baby gifts. In my eyes it was simply evidence that women who support a woman’s right to choose can also support a woman’s right to parent, can celebrate with her – that to be pro-choice is not to be anti-child.
Here, as pro life readers are probably getting frustrated with me, I would like to pause and show my cards. I am a mother of five. I have struggled with infertility, I have adopted, and I have experienced an unplanned – and initially very unwelcome – pregnancy. I am also, as I said, a Christian. My theology leads me to believe that every single person is loved by God, and every single person is a gift to the rest of us. To quote the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, “Every single human soul has more meaning and value than the whole of history.” Consequently, I consider every abortion a loss to us as a human family, just as every miscarriage is a loss. I am not persuaded, however, that depriving women of the right to abortion is the correct path. I’d much rather see a decrease in the number of women who feel the need to seek an abortion, and so I endorse access to contraception and strong social safety nets (both private and public).
This is the place where the messaging of Unplanned falls far short of what I think of a truly pro-life ethic. The only action shown by pro-life figures in the film is to stand outside the clinic gate protesting and/or praying. After her onscreen conversion, Johnson even tells one of the protesters that it’s the “dirty little secret” of Planned Parenthood that protesters outside clinics drive down their abortion rates. Women with appointments approach, see the protesters, and just keep on driving. Well, that’s great I guess, if all that concerns you is a momentary win for team anti-choice. But what does that actually do to meet the needs of those women or their children? What care has been offered? What support provided? I certainly know pro-life people who go farther than this in embodying their ethic, but they’re not shown in Unplanned. When the other side of a debate is depicted as entirely evil, you don’t need to worry about offering them compassion. You only need to score a point.
Speaking of sides and scoring points, there is political dog-whistling in Unplanned that lets us know that the black hats are not just inside clinics. At one point Cheryl mocks the now pro-life Abby by listing some of Planned Parenthoods supporters – “Soros, Gates, Buffet.” It felt like the verbal equivalent of putting on a MAGA hat, and when the film ends with the triumphant destruction of the clinic, and the bulldozer is driven by none other than My Pillow shiller and Trump fan Michael Lindell, the message was even clearer. It turns out that Lindell, who has said that Trump was “chosen by God” to run for president, helped fund Unplanned. The film’s official Twitter account has also run into controversy for tweeting a QAnon (a right wing conspiracy) hashtag, and “liking” a number of QAnon-related accounts. Why does any of this matter to me? Because the current Trump-supporting right wing, which gives much lip service to being pro-life, seems selective in which children’s lives matter. There’s debate among Christians about when a developing life is ensouled (a topic we should approach with considerable humility), but it is a valid critique that the political pro-life movement seems unconcerned with the lives and souls of children like Alan and Ghalib, Trayvon and Tamir, Jakelin and Felipe.
A couple of other notes on the film. The central performance by Ashley Bratcher, as Abby Johnson, is far above average for the Christian film industry. Most of the rest of the cast is what you’d expect: so-so to embarrassingly amateur. Despite my prayer to give the film a fair shot, it was almost derailed by an opening scene of Johnson driving to work past a series of happy young white couples. Perhaps this is what Bryan, Texas is really like, but my word, this movie is white and upper middle class. If I was a poor woman or a racial minority, I would feel utterly unseen by this film (and given the funding behind it, that may not be an accident).
Remember Juno, the 2007 film that introduced most of us to Ellen Page and infected the culture with the term “home skillet” for far too long? The creative forces behind Juno (writer Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman, Page, actress Jennifer Garner) were avowedly pro-choice, even holding a public reading of the script as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. Yet that film – about a pregnant teenager – offered a more complex and compassionate picture than Unplanned of why some women seek abortions, why some women decide against abortion, and how loving communities can support women in those decisions. It even had a more lovable clinic protester! Maybe viewers, both pro-life and pro-choice, should just skip Unplanned and watch Juno again.