Review of the Anti-Abortion Movie “Unplanned” (2019)

About a week ago I had a chance to watch the recent anti-abortion movie Unplanned. Admittedly, since I cannot (in good conscience) financially support the producers of the film, I resorted to downloading a pirated copy online. Nonetheless, I did watch the movie with two friends of mine, who had previously not heard of it. Unplanned appeared on my own personal radar, after I saw a number of anti-abortion advocates promote the movie on my Facebook feed. Although I did not pay to see Unplanned in theaters, perhaps they can still take a certain solace in me increasing the film’s viewership (even if off the record, since I didn’t want to increase its turn out at the box office).

Unplanned is produced by the makers of God’s Not Dead, which did not initially give me high expectations for the quality of the film. Nevertheless, I was delightfully surprised to find that Unplanned is actually a decent bit better than its predecessor. One of the major problems with God’s Not Dead was the uneven acting. Some characters were performed alright, but a lot of the acting in the film was B-rate and made the presentation feel choppy. I wouldn’t say that the acting in Unplanned is especially good, but the main actress (Ashley Bratcher) gives a compelling performance, while tracing the journey of the central protagonist (Abby Johnson) on her career from being a Planned Parenthood volunteer, and then clinic director, to ultimately coming out as an advocate against the organization.

The rest of the cast is mostly peripheral to filling in the edges around Abby Johnson’s biography. Her husband is one of the main characters in the film, who makes a couple brief, half-hearted arguments against abortion, while otherwise just being a generic spouse and dad figure. Brief moments of characterization are attempted, such as when he expresses excitement about getting a chimichanga at a restaurant, but for the most part the character is pretty one-dimensional.

Perhaps more interesting are Abby’s parents, who are both morally opposed to abortion and oppose her choice of career. I found this aspect of the film to be relatable. I was personally raised in an anti-abortion household, and while my parents generally don’t say much about the subject today, it was a source of tension between us when I first became pro-choice in my teenage years. No doubt many families are morally divided on the issue of abortion, and for some I am sure the tension can be quite difficult, even fracturing relationships. The conflict between Abby and her family is thus actually quite believable and a compelling part of the film’s drama.

But—in typical God’s Not Dead fashion—the antagonists in this movie are not convincing, as they basically amount to invective caricatures of “the other side.” At one point, Abby’s PP supervisor (who comes off a lot like Cruella de Vil) actually compares abortion to french fries and soda, for example, when arguing that fast food outlets don’t make their profits just by selling burgers (the PP equivalent of birth control, in this analogy). I found this line to just be hyperbole. I haven’t read Abby Johnson’s book (which the movie is based on), so I don’t know if she ever claims that her former employer actually said something like this. But it doesn’t matter to me, either way. PP is a large organization, and so I’m sure some people affiliated with it have made bad comments over the years. But what I mostly want to see is what is typical, not just what is sensational. I thus found the depiction of Abby’s supervisor to be more polemical than compelling. (The same woman has a bizarre obsession with Abby having a kid, for example, so that it seems like she just wants to abort every pregnancy that ever happens; they might as well have given her horns and a pitchfork).

The main abortion doctor in the film is likewise stereotypically branded as a “bad guy.” He throws Abby against a wall at one point, for example, and when she runs out of the room crying in another scene, he simply mutters, “Where the Hell is she going?” None of this is as bad, however, as a line that he drops in the film’s introduction, which considerably undermines what is supposed to be one of the most important moments in the story.

Unplanned begins in medias res, starting on the day in which Abby had her major revelation that abortion is wrong. After setting up this moment, the movie then backtracks eight years to tell us the story of how Abby (acting as the narrator) got to where she was on that day. While not necessarily a bad idea, in concept, I found the film’s execution of this storytelling device to be rather lackluster. Too little time was spent introducing the protagonist for me to become emotionally invested at that point. She has toast with her family for breakfast, then drives to work (as inspirational Christian music is playing), only to then immediately jump into a graphic abortion scene. This creates the effect of shock value, without giving a sense of what is personally at stake for the character. Unplanned does a better job of revisiting the scene, later in the movie, when we have a clearer idea of Abby’s personality and character goals. Still, I found the film’s opening to be rather clumsy.

But to return to the abortion doctor, it is during this scene that he drops what is perhaps the worst line of the entire movie. Right when the medical staff is set up to perform the abortion, the doctor signals to begin by saying, “Beam me up, Scotty!”

Like, seriously? When my friends and I first heard this line, we started to laugh. I mean, it shouldn’t have been a funny scene. In fact, I am certain that the film makers wanted to portray quite the opposite. This is supposed to be the hook that begins the audience’s journey of seeing the grim reality of abortion. And yet, it starts out with the awkward line: “Beam me up, Scotty!” I just found this to be random, unbelievable, and strangely amusing. I highly doubt that the vast majority of doctors would ever say something so insensitive in front of a patient. And even if such a thing has happened occasionally, as I said before, I want to see what is typical, not just sensational.

It’s also confusing just what exactly causes Abby to have a change of heart in that moment. The scene starts out with Abby walking into the procedure room, while narrating how she “had never been asked to assist in an abortion before.” So, one thinks that seeing an abortion being performed for the first time is what caused her to change her mind. But in terms of the storytelling and sequence of events, this later becomes jumbled. After flashing back multiple years, we actually see another scene in which Abby was not only present for an abortion, but even saw one of her friends having complications with the procedure, during which she almost dies. This is the same scene in which the abortion doctor throws Abby against a wall. One would think that such a prior experience would induce greater trauma than the more typical abortion (performed on a stranger) that she sees in the film’s introduction.

I had to go back and think about the movie, for a while, to really comprehend what was supposed to be so significant about the opening scene. What differs from this moment, as opposed to Abby’s prior experience witnessing abortion, is that she is asked to view an ultrasound of the procedure being performed. At this moment, she sees the fetus (which is actually just a low-quality CGI animation) move during the abortion. I suppose the conclusion she draws must have been that the fetus is capable of feeling pain. At some other points in the film, she assures women coming to the clinic that a fetus cannot feel anything during an abortion. Apparently, what she saw on the ultrasound changed her mind.

This is how I interpreted the major point that I think the movie was trying to make. In terms of the information that it presents, I did not find it compelling. The problem here is that the film doesn’t really explain what exactly it is that Abby saw. We don’t see Abby going to medical experts, for example, in order to get an explanation of why the fetus moved in that moment, and what implications it might have for a fetus’ mental awareness and capacity to suffer. Sure, it may be a visceral scene, capable of inducing pathos, but it’s not persuasive to someone who wants to hear clear and articulated arguments against abortion.

The film relies a lot on personal anecdotes from Abby’s life, about certain things that she found to be disturbing, which are nevertheless insufficiently elaborated upon. For example, at one point in the movie Abby is given pills, so that she can undergo a chemical abortion at home. (Since she was still early in the pregnancy, a procedure at the clinic was deemed unnecessary). Abby was told that the abortion would be just like a heavy period, without too much pain or stress. When she takes the pills, however, she starts to have cramps while bleeding uncontrollably. After a couple globs of cellular matter fall out of her, she scoops them into the toilet, while crying, and falls to the floor in convulsions, narrating how she felt like she might die.

Abby later calls the clinic to complain to them about how they had not properly warned her about the procedure. The problem with accepting this as an argument against abortion, however, is that we don’t get a broader sense of the medical science. Was Abby’s experience typical or unusual? What are actually the risks from taking such pills? How often are patients not adequately warned about the risks? All we are given is an anecdote about one woman’s experience. While I thought the scene was done alright, in terms of drama, it fails to present enough information to be compelling on an argumentative level.

While I have mentioned some graphic scenes in my analysis above, I will acknowledge (on a more positive note) that there is actually less gore in the film than what I had expected. Going into the movie, I had anticipated yucky scene after yucky scene depicting abortions. But the scope of the content is actually broader than that. Abby’s life experiences, even if presented more emotionally than factually, offer a window into the social background of how abortion impacts individual people. With the exception of Abby’s boss and the abortion doctor, the other women working at the clinic are depicted in a fairly sympathetic light, as ordinary and often well-meaning people, who have tragically been led by false promises into working for Planned Parenthood.

Certain scenes are only relatable, if one holds the same premises as the main character, but they can nonetheless be emotionally evocative. For example, at the end of the movie Abby writes a letter to the two “children” that she aborted earlier in the film (one being the aforementioned incident with he abortion pills, while the other is glossed over as a separate procedure she had done at the clinic). While praying Abby apologizes to them, saying that (thanks to God’s grace) she will one day get the chance to meet them in Heaven. I found this scene to be touching, but also problematic.

For an atheist like myself, the scene just raises a bunch of questions. For example, Abby does not abort her third pregnancy, and so she has one daughter who is born during the course of the film. If Abby’s two aborted “children” get automatic entry into Heaven, one wonders what would happen if her born child turned out to be a non-Christian later in life. What if number three ends up going to Hell, after becoming a non-believer during adulthood? Would it perhaps have been better, then, for Abby to abort all three pregnancies, since she would then be exposing no child to the risk of going to Hell?

Or, what if Abby (unknowingly) had a minor miscarriage at some point, wherein a fertilized egg failed to implant to her uterus? Would she later meet the “child” of this fertilized egg in Heaven? I know that I may, perhaps, be making some theological pot shots here—when the movie is not really about asking such philosophical questions—but nevertheless, it’s what occurred to me as an atheist viewer.

On a dramatic level, however, I found the scene with the letter and Abby’s prayer to be emotionally evocative, and in that respect, I would describe it as “decent cinema.” The actress may not persuade everyone to come to the same conclusion that Abby has, but she does a good job of making us feel Abby’s emotions, and how her journey has shaped her perspective. Even if not entirely relatable, such moments evoked pathos in me.

To use a (somewhat obscure) analogy, in Homeric literature one of the greatest fears that confronts a Hellenic hero is the possibility of dying without burial. In Greek mythology, those who are not properly buried can never enter the afterlife. This is a somewhat peculiar notion in modern times. Even though we still perform rituals to honor the dead, most people (even those who are quite religious) do not believe that a proper burial is necessary for a soul to enter the afterlife. But what makes Homer compelling as a story-teller is that he causes us to feel the emotions of these Greek heroes, and what thoughts shape their perspective. Their greatest fear was to be eaten by dogs! Even when someone does not share these premises, therefore, the effect on the audience can still be quite moving.

In like manner, certain scenes in Unplanned require one to hold Christian theological premises, in order to relate fully to Abby’s perspective. But I would still say that the actress does a good job of playing the role.

On that note, however, the ubiquitous presence of religion (particularly Christianity) in this film is something that I think detracts from its overall message. Virtually everybody in the movie is a Christian—both those working at the clinic and those protesting abortion outside. Abby is a Christian, her husband is a Christian, her parents are Christian, and the anti-abortion ministry, which Abby later joins (the “good guys” in the film), is likewise Christian. For certain characters, their religious beliefs are never really discussed. We don’t know, for example, whether Abby’s boss (the Cruella de Vil character) or the abortion doctor (“Beam me up, Scotty”) are religious or not. But then again, it is perhaps refreshing that they are not alternately depicted as “evil atheists,” or anything like that. Atheists are simply absent from this film.

As an atheist watching Unplanned, therefore, I must admit that there were few characters that I could personally relate to. It gave a decent sense of the characters’ motivations and struggles, but alas, I remain as an outsider looking in. If this movie wants to appeal to more than just a Christian audience, therefore, I think it somewhat fails in this purpose.

Unplanned is a kind of movie that will have a different impact, depending on the viewer. I have no doubt that most anti-abortion viewers (especially if they happen to be Christian) will like the movie and think that it makes compelling arguments. Other, pro-choice viewers may see it as too polemical and focused on anecdote.

The most positive thing I can say about Unplanned is that it is better than your typical Christian movie. The Christian songs in the soundtrack are a bit dull, but not dramatically out of place. Ashley Bratcher’s performance is quite good, and it was necessary to carry this film from start to finish. As I’ve noted, the other characters are too peripheral to really drive the story that much. But, as a personal testimony of one woman’s experience, the movie is quite watchable. I would say that I even enjoyed it!

I give the movie a solid three stars (with the qualification that I don’t support its producers or the central message). I can’t really encourage others to watch the film, in light of my own convictions, but it filled up a couple hours of my time with an engaging story, and for that, I have no regrets.

-Matthew Ferguson

(Abby Johnson, as depicted by Ashley Bratcher)

This entry was posted in Law, Miscellaneous, Musings, Philosophy, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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