What to say about Unplanned? Admittedly I went in expecting to like it, but that did not prepare me for the film’s exceptional emotional power, one of a fairly small number of films that have brought tears to my eyes. Yet you may not have heard of it. To say it does not appear to have the advertising budget of a Hollywood blockbuster would be an understatement, and much of the publicity it has garnered has been negative. More on that below, but first let us turn to this remarkable film.
The film is based on the experiences of Abby Johnson during her time as an abortion clinic volunteer, counsellor and later clinic director – until her views on abortion transformed dramatically as a result of seeing on an ultrasound monitor the abortion of an unborn child as it happened. This led her to face painful and difficult realisations and formidable obstacles, and has resulted in one of the most fascinating, moving and engaging films I have ever seen. Ms. Johnson’s story, so vividly brought to life in the film, could scarcely be more compelling.
For a film dealing with such a serious subject, it still glows with the many moments of joy in those years of Ms. Johnson’s life, as well as harrowing times. The combination of levity, hope and happy times with moments of despair was expertly handled. Most of the cast delivered very strong performances. Ashley Bratcher in particular inhabited the lead role brilliantly, in her loving but complicated relationships with her family, her desire to do what she believed was right at the time, her pride in her work, her sometimes quietly passionate anger in defence of abortion, her courage in admitting that what she saw was wrongful, and with that her brave recognition of the stark reality of what she had for years participated in.
One of the virtues of this film is that it does not portray most of those working in the abortion industry in a negative light. Instead, it makes clear that some of them are doing what they genuinely believe to be right, including Ms. Johnson herself, and most of them come across as likeable people. Conversely, not everyone on the pro-life side is shown in a positive light. In addition, for most of the duration of the film Ms. Johnson is unapologetically committed in her support for abortion. Accordingly, while the primary message of this film is pro-life, it is a nuanced production that illustrates the different perspectives on the issue and how Ms. Johnson and others are lulled into supporting abortion.
Moreover, because Ms. Johnson reveals the two abortions she herself had, and her role in so many more, the film also has a powerful message of hope for anyone experiencing hurt or regret after abortion or who has been involved in providing abortions. It conveys a clear message that they do not need to be permanently defined by their past and can build a better future if that is their wish. Ms. Johnson’s own life story is an enduring testament to that.
It is difficult to fit eight years of a life into a film short enough for people to want to watch it, but the filmmakers deal with this very well. They cover all that is necessary for the audience and more, and the film runs smoothly and never flags as it might have done if they had tried to pack more in.
Abortion campaigners have attempted to discredit Unplanned and it seems necessary to address such criticisms very briefly.
One criticism of the film particularly struck me. Some obstetricians have reportedly criticised the scene depicting an ultrasound-guided abortion, on the basis that at 13 weeks they say an unborn child cannot make purposeful movements.[i] However, Dr. Anthony Levatino, an obstetrician and former abortionist, pointed out that “babies start moving at 10 weeks, and they move all the time, they’re very active”, that they move during an abortion, and he did not believe anyone in the film had said the movements were purposeful anyway. Moreover, according to an embryology textbook[ii] “purposeful limb movements first occur during the eighth week” after conception (about the tenth week by the way time is measured in obstetrics). Even if that were not so however, how significant would the point be? Are we to consider the destruction of a living, moving, vulnerable human being with eyes and ears, hands and feet and fingers and toes – and tell ourselves that if her or his movement is not purposeful then that makes all the difference? We set a disturbingly low bar of humanity indeed if that is to be any kind of a standard.
Dr Kathi Aultman, former abortionist and obstetrician, has also affirmed the film’s accuracy, writing that “the depiction of the abortion procedure…was accurate and was not sensationalized.”
Ms. Johnson has also had to refute various claims made by one journalist in an article later used to disseminate such claims against her more widely.[iii] Such is the punishment for a courageous woman who dares to voice her personal story, told from a vantage point within the abortion industry that makes her testimony particularly dangerous to a very powerful agenda – and thus particularly likely to be denounced and smeared.
In any case, there are many reasons to go to Unplanned, and whichever of those reasons appeals to you I cannot recommend highly enough that you go. It offers an unusually profound, gripping and meaningful cinematic experience that more than deserves to be seen, just as you deserve to see it. Those are probably the most obvious reasons to go. Or maybe you will watch it out of curiosity to see what abortion campaigners do not want you to see, and in some cases have actually tried to prevent from being shown. Or watch it for any other reason you like.
This is an extraordinary film that has even altered the views of some people who were in favour of abortion when they went to see it, but were willing to consider the issue in light of new information, as Ms. Johnson was. I really respect the people who are for abortion but open-minded enough to watch this film. For some of them it changed their minds, and presumably for some it did not – but at least they gave it a chance. Maybe you will too!
[i] The Sunday Times 29th September 2019
[ii] Drs. Moore, Persaud and Torchia, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (10th edition (international edition), Elsevier, Philadelphia, USA, 2016) p. 84
Geoffrey Sumner is a barrister living and working in Galway