Unplanned, the anti-abortion movie that’s getting mainstream attention, explained

Abby Johnson visits SiriusXM Studios in New York City on March 19, 2019.

The movie paints the anti-abortion movement as pro-woman.

Early in the film Unplanned, Abby Johnson gives an abortion clinic protester a piece of her mind.

She’s just started volunteering at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, and she’s angry at the activists shouting at patients and frightening them with graphic signs and scary costumes.

“In what world would a woman run to someone dressed like the Grim Reaper for help with her crisis pregnancy?” Johnson asks one of the kinder anti-abortion protesters.

It’s a surprising scene to see in a fervently anti-abortion movie, but it feels like a summary of the film’s whole approach: Unplanned distances itself from aggressive anti-abortion protests and advocates a course that’s more friendly and welcoming, at least on the surface. The movie earned an R rating for graphic images of aborted fetuses and abortions gone awry, and has been criticized by experts who say its depictions of the procedure are inaccurate. But it also includes a number of touches that seem designed to paint the anti-abortion movement as pro-woman, even feminist.

Unplanned is a scripted film that tells the real-life story of Johnson, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic who became an anti-abortion activist. The film beat box office expectations after its theatrical release on March 29, making back its $6 million budget in its first weekend.

And it may be part of a larger trend: As legislators push ever more restrictive abortion bills at the state level, the creators of anti-abortion movies like Unplanned are pursuing a different approach. They’re using narrative in an effort to change people’s minds on abortion, and to inspire activism among people who already oppose the procedure.

“What we liked about Abby’s story is it kind of covers both extremes and the middle of the abortion issue,” Joe Sexton, a producer for Unplanned, told Vox. “There’s an on-ramp for whatever you believe or what you think you believe.”

Unplanned is critical of abortion — and of some anti-abortion advocates

In 2009, Abby Johnson resigned as the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas. She says she decided she could no longer work there after seeing an ultrasound during an abortion procedure. Johnson told Vox the procedure was the culmination of a long process of disillusionment with the group, which she felt was becoming increasingly focused on abortion. “That was the final thing that I needed to be able to say, this is not what I want to be a part of anymore,” she said.

Abby Johnson (third from right) addresses a rally on the National Mall before the start of the March for Life on January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Abby Johnson (third from right) addresses a rally on the National Mall before the start of the March for Life on January 27, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Johnson later joined Coalition for Life, a group whose members protested outside her clinic, and eventually became a highly visible anti-abortion advocate, founding a nonprofit that works to convince abortion clinic employees to quit their jobs.

Unplanned tells the story of Johnson’s eight-year career at Planned Parenthood and ultimate decision to leave, also detailed in Johnson’s 2011 book of the same title. The film shows Johnson beginning as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood as a college student. As she works her way up to clinic director, she witnesses callous and dangerous treatment of patients — one young woman is left sitting in a recovery room, bleeding into her socks, until Johnson intervenes.

Early in the film, Johnson, played by Ashley Bratcher, herself has two abortions — the second, a medication abortion, is depicted as a harrowing, multi-day ordeal. Later, she remarries (an early marriage ended in divorce) and has a daughter, Grace.

Soon after her arrival at Planned Parenthood, Johnson encounters a variety of clinic protesters, including some who harass patients.

“No matter what good things you do in your life, you’re still going to be a baby killer,” one man yells. “And all because you couldn’t keep your legs closed!”

But she strikes up a cordial relationship with one couple — Shawn Carney of Coalition for Life and his wife, Marilisa. They are kind, offering help and counseling to patients and Planned Parenthood employees alike. When Johnson criticizes the “Grim Reaper” protester, Marilisa agrees with her: “I think you’re right, Abby. It doesn’t help.”

The movie is part of a trend of anti-abortion films

The scenes on the sidewalk in front of the clinic may be emblematic of a larger approach by the creators of Unplanned and movies like it.

Anti-abortion documentaries have been around for decades, dating back to 1984’s The Silent Scream, Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist and the leader of the Abortion Onscreen project at the organization Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, told Vox. But scripted anti-abortion films like Sarah’s Choice (2009) and Gosnell (2018) became more common in the past decade, as advocates on both sides of the issue began to embrace narrative as a persuasive tool.

While reproductive justice advocates encouraged people to share the stories of their abortions, Sisson said, anti-abortion advocates began making movies like Unplanned.

“It’s hard to argue with a true story,” Sexton, the producer, said. “It’s really hard to argue with the journey that Abby took.”

The filmmaking effort has ramped up recently, with three scripted anti-abortion films hitting theaters in the past year.

The films, which are often available on Christian streaming services as well as in theaters, have a message for Christians, Sisson said: “You’re not doing your duty as a Christian if you’re not actively trying to prevent women from having abortions.”

But the creators of movies like Unplanned are also trying to speak to an ideological center, Sisson said, banking on the idea that “there are people who are either pro-choice but uncomfortable with the reality of abortion, or who haven’t thought deeply about it, that will be readily moved by the images that they’re seeing.”

Such films also offer the promise of forgiveness, Sisson said: “If you are a woman who has had an abortion, you can still be forgiven, and you will still be embraced by the movement.”

Indeed, when Johnson decides to leave Planned Parenthood, she’s welcomed by the Coalition for Life, who help her pray over her two abortions in some of the film’s final scenes. It’s clearly their approach the film endorses, and not that of the protesters who yell at women.

“I did see this glaring contrast between two groups of people,” said Johnson, who was on set for the filming of many of the scenes with protesters. “I needed to show that there are effective and ineffective ways to reach out to women.”

Unplanned tries to send a pro-woman message — but it’s a mixed one

Another way the film may be reaching out to women is its portrayal of Johnson’s interest in female empowerment. Johnson is initially drawn to Planned Parenthood in part because of an appeal to feminism: “It’s hard to believe that there’s still some people out there that want to tell us what we can and can’t do with our bodies,” a Planned Parenthood outreach worker tells her at a college event.

“Yeah,” Johnson responds. “I completely agree with equal rights for women.”

Throughout the film, Johnson is portrayed as assertive and strong — her mother jokes at one point about reading The Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. And when Johnson admonishes a clinic protester that “what you’re doing right now doesn’t seem like caring to me,” it feels like viewers are meant to admire her commitment to standing up for women.

On her website, Johnson advocates for “a new kind of feminism” and argues that “abortion exploits women.” And Unplanned, to some degree, promulgates a kind of crossover message: You can be anti-abortion and still be feminist.

But despite the film’s apparent endorsement of equality, there are subtle messages throughout Unplanned that Johnson’s status as a working mom — and not just her job in an abortion clinic — is problematic.

In an early scene, 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 mommy,” Johnson’s husband says.

Grace wants to play, but Johnson has to go to work: “Saturday is Mommy’s busiest day,” she says.

“It’s not just that she’s going to work in an abortion clinic,” Sisson said, “it’s that she’s going to work at all.”

In another scene, after Grace’s birth, Johnson’s mother — presented as a key moral center of the film — is disturbed at Johnson’s intention to go back to work. “Don’t you think this baby needs you?” she asks.

“Those are not just ideas about abortion,” Sisson said. “Those are ideas about what her ultimate role is.”

Johnson, now a working mother of seven with an eighth on the way, insisted in our interview that the film is far from anti-working mom. She pointed to a scene in which Johnson discloses her pregnancy to her supervisor. The supervisor suggests that having a baby will lessen Johnson’s commitment to her work, but Johnson proves her wrong.

“I wanted women to see that you actually don’t have to choose, that you can have a successful career and that you can be a mother,” Johnson told Vox.

But she also said that “one thing that’s sort of lost sometimes in the feminist perspective is that women do have an innate desire to be compassionate, to be caring.”

“Not all of us are called to be mothers,” she added, “but that’s something that’s inborn inside of women.”

Unplanned may be part of a larger strategy

Whatever message Unplanned sends about working mothers, the filmmakers are clear about the film’s anti-abortion goals. Unplanned was co-written and directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, the team behind the 2014 Christian film God’s Not Dead. Solomon told the New York Times he hoped Unplanned would trigger “the cultural moment that overturns Roe v. Wade.”

It remains to be seen how many minds the film will change. Unplanned made $6.1 million in its first weekend, beating expectations and marking the second-strongest debut for Pure Flix, a production and distribution company that specializes in Christian movies, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Johnson said she’s been surprised by the number of abortion rights supporters who have seen the film.

But it performed best at theaters in red states like Kansas and Missouri, and more conservative areas of blue states, like California’s Orange County, according to THR. Churches and anti-abortion groups have organized group viewings of the film, according to the Times, and the Unplanned website includes a devotional called Planned From the Start, aimed at religious viewers.

Unplanned writer-directors Chuck Konzelman (left) and Cary Solomon (right) and star Ashley Bratcher (center) attend the film’s premiere on March 18, 2019 in Hollywood, CaliforniaMaury Phillips/Getty Images for Unplanned Movie, LLC
Unplanned writer-directors Chuck Konzelman (left) and Cary Solomon (right) and star Ashley Bratcher attend the film’s premiere on March 18, 2019, in Hollywood, California.

Meanwhile, Sisson and others question whether the approach of Unplanned is really so different from that of the protesters it decries. In the film, the peaceful Coalition for Life members distance themselves “from the pictures of bloody fetuses, but then the movie itself is a larger piece of propaganda that’s so bloody and so reliant on fetal imagery,” Sisson said.

Indeed, the film includes many scenes of blood gushing through tubes and onto women’s clothes, painting a picture of abortion as extremely dangerous. In fact, according to one recent study, complications occur in about 2.1 percent of abortions, with major complications — defined as hospitalizations, surgeries, or transfusions — happening in 0.23 percent. The procedure is significantly safer than childbirth.

Unplanned has also been criticized for its portrayal of the ultrasound-guided abortion that Johnson says led her to leave her job. The fetus visible on the ultrasound appears to claw at the uterus, “fighting for its life” in Johnson’s words. Jennifer Villavicencio, a fellow with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the Times that at 13 weeks, fetuses do not feel pain and cannot recoil from a threat. “There is no neurological capability for awareness of danger — that part of the brain is simply not there yet,” she told the Times.

And Planned Parenthood disputes the notion that it pressured Johnson or anyone to increase the number of abortions as a moneymaking tactic, as portrayed in the film.

“Over the last decade the abortion rate has declined in the United States, yet abortion opponents make false, nefarious claims about Planned Parenthood’s agenda,” said Elizabeth Toledo, a former vice president for the organization who now runs a communications company. “The reality is that Planned Parenthood does more than any other health care provider to prevent unintended pregnancy.”

Johnson says she hopes the film “creates increased dialogue around the topic of abortion,” and that “you can walk into this film pro-choice and walk out still pro-choice, but that’s okay.”

But abortion rights advocates say Unplanned and films like it are part of a larger strategy to paint the anti-abortion position as both moderate and pro-woman, even as advocates push tougher and tougher restrictions. In the past 10 years, Sisson said, anti-abortion advocates have increasingly cast abortion restrictions as efforts to protect women.

They’re also trying to “move the goalposts,” changing what seems normal to Americans when it comes to abortion, said Adrienne Kimmell, vice president of communications and strategic research at NARAL Pro-Choice America.

As state after state passes “heartbeat” bills banning abortion as early as six weeks, a 20-week ban like that proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) earlier this month might seem middle-of-the-road by comparison, Kimmell said. And, she argued, anti-abortion advocates are trying to paint relatively minor liberalizations of abortion law, like a bill recently proposed in Virginia that would broaden the circumstances under which someone could get an abortion late in pregnancy, as extremist.

Protesters oppose Ohio’s “heartbeat” bill in Columbus, Ohio, on December 12, 2018LightRocket via Getty Images
Protesters oppose Ohio’s “heartbeat” bill in Columbus on December 12, 2018.

Anti-abortion groups are “engaged in a coordinated and long-term strategy for which the ultimate goal is to criminalize abortion,” Kimmell said, and films like Unplanned are part of that strategy.

Movies like Unplanned may try to draw a distinction between gentler and more aggressive tactics on the anti-abortion side, Sisson said, but ultimately, it’s a matter of degree, not kind.

“You have the peaceful sidewalk counselors, you have the more aggressive ones,” she said. But “they are all contingent on the same view of the world.”

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