What Is an Anti-Abortion Movie Supposed to Do?

Image: Pure Flix

It is hard to make a movie when the world is out to get you. “We couldn’t get music for the movie, no one was taking our ad dollars, social media,” Cary Solomon, one half of the writer-director team behind Unplanned, explained in an interview just a few days before the film’s March release. “It is a conspiracy, and I will say that the left is very, very good at doing this sort of thing to get their agenda promoted. They punish those who go against them.”

The left and secular media were not the only forces conspiring to hold the movie back: There were also “over a dozen car accidents where the cars have been ripped to pieces or rolled over by a truck,” Solomon said, alluding to more Mephistophelean obstacles.

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Despite an apparent plague of near-fatal incidents and media treachery, the creators of Unplanned—which tells the story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who went on to become a celebrity in the anti-abortion movement—made a profitable movie. Even in the film’s limited run, it’s now the Christian production house Pure Flix’s second-biggest release behind 2016's God’s Not Dead 2, bringing in more than $6 million in its opening weekend and expanding to hundreds more theaters. There have been theater buyouts and ticket giveaways, often done in coordination with churches and anti-abortion networks, and even an invitation to Washington, D.C. (The film’s other writer and director, Chuck Konzelman, recently testified before Congress, where he claimed 94 clinic workers had, after watching the movie, reached out asking for help leaving the industry.)

Unplanned managed to sell tickets off the strength of its underdog narrative, endorsements from senators and the vice president of the United States, and a healthy assist from a rumored Twitter conspiracy and mainstream television networks’ general refusal to touch abortion-related advertising content.

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Still, the theater I went to on a Thursday afternoon in early April was mostly empty (as most daytime screenings on a weekday are), save for four older people who each arrived and sat alone. After a series of trailers that oscillated between godly devotion and maximum teen horniness, the movie started with narration from Johnson, played by Ashley Bratcher: “My story isn’t an easy one to hear,” she tells the audience. “I think I probably ought to warn you of that upfront.”

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Spoilers ahead.

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In the opening sequence, we learn that Johnson has a cute daughter, a doting husband, a large house, and a red convertible (one of many unsubtle references to just how wealthy a job at Planned Parenthood will apparently make you). It’s a Saturday, the one day of the week that her clinic in Bryan, Texas offers surgical abortion. Everything is the same, then everything changes.

Once in her office, Johnson is called to assist in an ultrasound-guided abortion. The doctor performing the abortion is brash, the woman on the table distressed (the women on the table are always distressed). As the procedure begins, the sound of a heartbeat fills the room; Johnson looks to the ultrasound screen and observes a fetus of 13 weeks. Soon, the aspiration probe appears on the screen. The fetus moves frantically to evade it. Johnson grows upset. The fetus is no match for the probe, and it soon disappears from the screen like a dying man lost to the current.

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This is the moment that “changed everything,” both in the film and according to Johnson’s personal accounts—told through a decade of interviews and a book, on which the film is based. These details, from the timing and circumstances of her exit from Planned Parenthood to the ultrasound-guided procedure she says she witnessed, have been contested by reporting from Texas Monthly and medical experts. Still, the truth feels largely beside the point. Whether Johnson’s conversion story is factual or not, whether what she says she saw ever happened, she has still spent the past 10 years as a powerful force in the anti-abortion movement: someone who says she has seen the true face of Planned Parenthood and come out on the other side. (This 2009 interview with then-Fox News host Mike Huckabee is fairly representative of the conservative response to Johnson’s story. He is awe-struck.)

Unplanned, then, is a movie-length version of Johnson’s interviews and speaker circuit appearances. It shows Johnson pressuring patients into having abortions and offering them inappropriate counseling. (“Part of my job as clinic director was selling abortions, and I was good at it,” she says.) Johnson’s supervisor at Planned Parenthood—the kind of thin, beautiful woman who you imagine does a lot of yoga but is also very mean—tells her at one point that she is doubling the clinic’s abortion quota because Planned Parenthood operates much like a fast food chain: “Abortion is our fries and soda,” she spits. “Abortion is what pays your salary... Abortion is what pays for all of it and your family.” In a scene depicting the aftermath of Johnson’s own medication abortion, she writhes around helplessly, soaked in blood.

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Outside the clinic every day, helpful and compassionate anti-abortion protesters pray and stare doe-eyed at patients entering the clinic. When Johnson has reached her limit—when she sees the fetus trying to outrun an abortion—she seeks out the organization behind the protesters. In the final scene, she switches sides of the fence, calling out to the patients she used to see in the clinic. (Johnson confesses to the protesters that, though she denied it while working at Planned Parenthood, what they’re doing outside the clinic really works at dissuading patients from seeking abortion.)

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By the end of the movie, Johnson is saved, and a title screen reveals that you can be saved, too. But odds are good that, if you’re sitting in a theater watching Unplanned, you already are.

In order to make a movie that is anti-abortion, and not just subtly foreclosing or misleading in the way so many movies are, the option is generally caricature or propaganda.Which is clearly what the directors of Unplanned were aiming for anyway, as both describe the film in interviews as mission-driven and a vehicle for God’s work. The characters are exaggerated archetypes. The story is not so much Johnson’s alone as it is the story of abortion and Planned Parenthood as they exist right now—the story of a lie exposed. But that’s expected. But that’s expected. This is an anti-abortion film in an entertainment landscape that has often defaulted to anti-abortion myths.

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The idea of making abortion not just illegal but “unthinkable” often gets repeated as an objective of the anti-abortion movement, but you can already see that world in television and movies. (With welcome exceptions, and this is more and more the case in recent years.) Even in execution, Unplanned is, of course, a bad movie—soft focus and corny, aesthetic tics that make so many Christian films look like cheap porn—but it’s precisely the kind of movie you make when the industry’s tacit acceptance of an anti-abortion worldview no longer feels sufficient. They have bigger goals in mind, anyway.

In the same interview leading up to the film’s release, Unplanned’s directors claimed that a screening of the movie helped push through a six-week abortion ban in Georgia. (“The feedback we got was that basically the vote would not have gone the way it did... without them having seen the film,” Konzelman said.) Republican-controlled state legislatures need very little prodding when it comes to passing draconian abortion restrictions, but it’s a nice story to tell yourself. Maybe they’ll make a movie about it.

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This piece has been updated.

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