Unplanned, the film about former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson and her change of heart about abortion that caused her to leave her job opens in theaters in this weekend, and is expected to cause a stir. For one of the most volatile topics in our country for nearly the past half-century, abortion is not often a topic one sees showcased at the movies. But for those who’ve read her page-turning 2010 book of the same name, it’s no surprise this story was made into a film. Nowhere before has there been a story that captured such empathy for both sides of a nationally divisive issue as that of Abby Johnson.
Both abortion supporters and abortion opponents have a lot to gain from watching the story. Both will find greater humanity in the other side than they probably felt beforehand. Here are just some of the many parties that Unplanned portrays in a relatable and human light.
Women Who Find Themselves With Unplanned Pregnancies
Toward the beginning of the story, Abby reveals that when she went to college, she was surrounded by a party lifestyle. After being wooed by a man ten years older than her, she realized she was pregnant. While the father of the child was used to this (he told her he had taken a previous sexual partner to an abortion clinic in Houston before), Abby was stunned to find herself in this situation.
Elsewhere in the film, Unplanned paints the various women who face unplanned pregnancies with incredible delicacy and respect. Coming from various backgrounds and situations, the women entering the abortion clinic are portrayed as dealing with complex emotions and grappling with various pressures. One was pressured by her father to get an abortion; another was urged by her mother not to abort. Many appeared young, in shock, and not ready to start a family. Still others not pictured (but referenced throughout the film) circled the parking lot and never stepped in—revealing they were still in the process of deciding what to do. Overall, the film highlights the uncertainty and complexity so many women face when dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.
Women Who Choose Abortion
Those who know Abby Johnson’s story know she ended her first pregnancy with abortion. In the film, Abby explained she didn’t want to embarrass her parents and wasn’t ready to have a child. So when her boyfriend offered to take her to a clinic in Houston, she accepted. She paid for the procedure with a credit card and “slammed the experience in a box,” not telling anyone for years.
Later, Abby married the man and, after discovering infidelity, she filed for divorce. Shortly after, she received positive results on a pregnancy test yet again. This time she felt cornered since she never wanted to see this man again or share any connection with him. Since her pregnancy was less than 9 weeks progressed, this time she received the more affordable abortion pill. But after seeing how physically painful that experience played out for Abby, viewers get an idea that women who choose abortion are human—they have understandable reasons for being there, they have mixed feelings about the experience, and they have physical and emotional suffering too. Abortion may be painted as an easy way out to some, but Unplanned shows it’s not always easy.
Women Who Choose to Proceed With Unplanned Pregnancies
In another part of the film, Abby faces her third unplanned pregnancy. This time, she’s conceived while on a birth-control pill. But since she’s now in a healthy relationship with her second husband, Doug, she decides to proceed with her pregnancy. Her boss isn’t too thrilled with it, but Abby says she believes she can progress with both her career and her family. She proceeds to break records at her clinic and ultimately earn an award for Employee of the Year, while also being a fun and engaged mom to her daughter Grace. With her story and others, Unplanned shows understanding to women who choose to proceed with unplanned pregnancies.
Ashley Bratcher, the actress who plays Abby, has also said in interviews that she herself had an unplanned pregnancy and, despite feeling embarrassed about it and not being married, she chose to have her son. She used to keep this fact quiet, but after acting in Unplanned, she decided to make it more public and try to decrease stigma for women who choose to proceed with pregnancy during less-than-ideal circumstances.
In Unplanned, abortion clinic staff are portrayed as relatable and human as well. All of them are working at the clinic because they care about women, and some even said they feel they’re doing “God’s work.” They rush women past the protesters outside because they are trying to help them feel comfortable during a difficult decision and crisis.
They aren’t anti-baby either. When Abby is preparing to have her daughter Grace, the staff at her clinic threw her a baby shower after hours, showing her support and love for her decision. Abby grew close friendships with a number of coworkers, as one does at any place of work. Also, like any place of work, the office staff had silly office banter. Regarding the difficult aspects of working at an abortion clinic, the staff came up with jokes attempting to bring comic relief for each other.
While the abortion doctor at Abby’s clinic is portrayed as an insensitive and curt person who gets right to business, Abby did offer a sympathetic human portrayal for abortionist George Tiller when he was killed—a news event that was included in Abby’s storyline. “I knew him; he had a family,” Abby told her husband Doug, while expressing horror at whoever would gun down a person at a church. For fear of her safety, she and her family slept that night at her parents’ house.
Certain Abortion Protesters
Abortion supporters may be happy to see Abby portrays many abortion protestors negatively—precisely the ones most people think of holding signs with dead babies, yelling judgmental rants, and dressed in costumes like the Grim Reaper. Abby expresses disgust at a protester who yells at a woman entering the clinic that none of this would have happened if she “kept her legs closed.” These people are among the worst portrayed characters in the film—their abhorrent behavior speaking for itself.
But Unplanned reminds us not all people with anti-abortion views are rude and offensive. Abby gets to know the peaceful protestors from a group called the Coalition for Life, later renamed 40 Days for Life, who prayed silently outside, offered services to help women who wanted to keep their babies, and treated Abby like a friendly neighbor across the fence. This aspect of the Unplanned story served to remind viewers that no matter one’s personal views, civil discourse and respect is not only possible—it should be our first priority.
Challenging Our Prejudices
Of course since Abby Johnson’s story is one where she ultimately changed her views to become anti-abortion, viewers can expect to see her paint a human picture of unborn babies in the womb as well; in that respect she shows viewers a CGI reenactment of what she saw on an untrasound-guided abortion procedure after being called into the room to help. Witnessing that 13-week abortion was a turning point for Johnson, who, like countless women she’d counseled before, thought fetuses in the womb couldn’t feel pain and looked like blobs of tissue. I won’t entirely give away that pivotal part of the film for you, but as one pro-choice author wrote after seeing the film:
“I went into that theater, thinking there was NOTHING that could go onto that screen that would make me question myself and I was wrong. What I saw DID make me question myself and my beliefs and I believe that EVERYONE should go and test themselves as I did. If you are already Pro-Life, go and see that these people who work in those facilities BELIEVE they are helping and that is why they are there. If you are Pro-Choice, please go and expose yourself to a different perspective and compare that to your own reasons for your vote. If you’re unsure and just curious, GO. This film will challenge you in a way that politically-charged Facebook disputes never will.”
Which gets us back to one of the most palpable aspects of Unplanned. In humanizing women who choose abortion, people who work at abortion clinics, and even people who oppose abortion (Abby Johnson being someone who fit in each of those categories herself at different points in the story), the story of Unplanned has the potential to take our nation’s dialogue on abortion to a new, more humane level. It encourages viewers to move dialogue beyond predisposed beliefs about the “other side” and toward a greater understanding of the complexity of this issue. As viewers hear Abby say in a voiceover at the start of the film, “my story isn’t a neat and tidy one.” That’s a phrase than can just as well be applied to the issue of abortion.
One thing is for certain: for as extreme a shift as Abby Johnson took in her abortion views, from a facilitator to an opponent, what’s remarkably consistent throughout the film is her genuine concern for women. And that’s something people on all sides of the issue can stand behind.
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