A new film from the creators of God’s Not Dead is playing to a largely pro-life Christian audience. Unplanned takes aim at Planned Parenthood, firing a shot in a US culture war raging over abortion. The truth of the film’s subject matter, however, is at risk of being caught in the crossfire.
Unplanned is the story of Abby Johnson, a woman who worked for Planned Parenthood but has since become an anti-abortion activist, setting up an organisation that finds alternative sources of employment for those who have worked in the clinics that deliver terminations.
Johnson worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas from 2001 to 2009. She says she decided to leave her job at a Planned Parenthood clinic after seeing an ultrasound-guided abortion.
“It moved and it was twisting and fighting for its life – and then it was just gone,” she says. “I never want to be part of an abortion again.”
According to Johnson, this moment led to a slow realisation that she had deceived women and been complicit in 20,000 abortions.
United States Vice President Mike Pence is among those who have seen the movie, taking to Twitter to praise it as “a deeply inspiring pro-life film.”
So good to see movie theaters across the country showing @UnplannedMovie — a deeply inspiring new pro-life film based on the best-selling book by @AbbyJohnson. More & more Americans are embracing the sanctity of life because of powerful stories like this one. #Unplanned
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) April 1, 2019
The film, based on Johnson’s memoir, has been the subject of controversy surrounding Johnson’s motivations for speaking out.
The Planned Parenthood clinic that she worked in shows no record of an ultrasound-guided termination taking place on the day that she claims to have seen the procedure, a slippage that Johnson attributes to poor administration or tampering.
Before she quit, Johnson and a co-worker were disciplined for an email that they sent regarding a fellow employee of Planned Parenthood. On the night Johnson quit her role, she wrote on Facebook that her superiors had said that her “job performance was ‘slipping.’ ”)
Beyond the question of exactly why Johnson opted to become an anti-abortion activist, critics have highlighted inaccuracies in Unplanned’s depiction of Planned Parenthood and abortion in general.
Jennifer Villavicencio, an obstetrician, said that the scene where a 13-week old foetus is depicted recoiling in pain is inaccurate. According to Dr Villavicencio, a foetus does not have the neurological capability to feel pain at that point.
At another point, one of the characters chides the protagonist for being reluctant, saying “abortion is what pays for your salary, abortion is what pays for all of it.” Planned Parenthood is, however, a non-profit organisation and most of its services are free. According to Planned Parenthood’s 2017/18 annual report, terminations account for 3.4 percent of its health treatments.
Beyond mere inaccuracies and “he said/she said” controversies, some of the film’s critics have argued that Unplanned is spreading misinformation that is actively dangerous in a hyper-charged, partisan environment where clinics have been bombed and a physician murdered for delivering terminations.
One critic, The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman, has observed that the film’s financial backers include Mike Lindell, the founder of My Pillow, a bedding manufacturer “frequently on the bad end of class action lawsuits” and who recently referred to Donald Trump as “the greatest president in history…chosen by God.” Vox’s Anna North argues that the film appears to be part of a wider political strategy in the US to criminalise abortion. She also notes that the film sends a subtle message that women working is problematic.
North cites an early scene where Johnson’s daughter Grace doesn’t like the way her father has cut her morning toast, so Johnson swiftly fixes it.
“That’s why you’re the
m[u]mmy,” Johnson’s husband says.
While the film does depict a certain amount of pro-life protestors as violent and aggressive, in a review for The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz observes that the film never gives an out-and-out condemnation of violence. At one point, he notes, Johnson befriends an anti-abortion activist who casually compares the practice to the Holocaust.
“Though Unplanned never asks this, I will”, writes Hertz.
“What action might some of the film’s more intellectually susceptible audiences be inspired to take?”
Whether it is a similar kind of concern or a desire not to become embroiled in what Sojourners’ Jim Wallis describes as a “hot button issue”, a number of music labels denied the producers the rights to use their songs on the soundtrack, with The Fray’s ‘How to Save a Life’, Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, and One Direction’s ‘Story of My Life’ were all pulled from the film.
Another hurdle was put down for the film when America’s MPAA gave the film an R-rating due to the graphic portrayal of an abortion. In response, Pure Flix’s Vice President of Distribution Ken Rather said that he thought it was “sad” that a “15 year-old girl can get an abortion without her parent’s permission but she can’t see this movie without adult supervision.”
Despite opposition to the film, Pure Flix remained undeterred. The company quickly made back Unplanned’s $6 million budget and has since taken the film beyond the US and into other international markets, with the Australian Christian Lobby now organising screenings down under. In September and October, the film will make its way to those select cinemas willing to show it in Townsville, Launceston, and Redcliffe. Fan Force is also bringing it to some 200 locations across the country.
The ACL’s Managing Director, Martyn Iles, has called for pro-life people to take friends who support abortion to Unplanned.
Mr Iles told Vision Christian Radio, “We’re talking about a movie here that resulted in one percent of all abortion clinic workers in the United States of America reaching out to Abby Johnson’s foundation for help to exit the industry, within the first 10 days of it going to theatres.”
For their part, the filmmakers behind Unplanned say that they hope that the film gives women who have had abortions the chance to find forgiveness and healing, and to change hearts and minds on the topic.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor