“My story isn’t an easy one to hear. I think I probably ought to warn you of that up front.”
Those words introduce us to Abby Johnson in Unplanned, which tells the true story of how this former Planned Parenthood clinic director changed her mind about abortion. Indeed, her story isn’t easy to watch. But it forces viewers to confront the reality of abortion from an unexpected viewpoint.
Abby’s story begins during her college years at Texas A&M. She grew up as a “small-town super achiever,” she says. But when she got to college, she quickly became a “party girl” … and got pregnant. “I’ll take you to a clinic to take care of it,” her boyfriend, Mark, tells her.
“I can’t tell my parents about this,” she believes. “They can’t know I’m having sex. They can’t know I’m pregnant.” And so Abby gets her first credit card, so that she can secretly pay $500 for her abortion.
An ill-advised marriage to Mark follows, as does a divorce after he cheats on her. But even as the divorce proceedings go forward, Abby learns she’s pregnant again, and she chooses a second abortion, this time via the abortion drug RU-486.
All this before Abby’s junior year of college.
At a job fair that year, Abby meets a young woman promoting Planned Parenthood. “It’s hard to believe that there’s still some people out there that wanna tell us what we can and can’t do with our body,” the young recruiter says, inviting Abby to volunteer. Soon, she agrees to start volunteering. “I left campus that day as a proud champion of women in crisis.”
That choice will redirect the trajectory of her life, as volunteering leads to a job and, eventually, to being named director of her local clinic in Bryan, Texas.
But Abby is surrounded by people who grieve for her career choice: her parents; her loving and patient second husband, Doug; and a group of faithful pro-life advocates who turn up every Saturday to pray and to convince the women who arrive to reconsider their choice.
But Abby still believes she’s helping women … right up to the moment that she’s asked to help with an abortion procedure, something she’s never done in eight years. The tragedy she witnesses on the ultrasound screen accomplishes in one moment what years of conversations with her family had failed to do.
In that moment, everything changes for Abby, propelling her life in a new direction, and putting her on a collision course with her former employer, the biggest abortion provider in America.
At the outset, a voiceover from Abby tells us that she’s often asked if she was really that “gullible, foolish and naive” with regard to Planned Parenthood’s emphasis on abortion. She says simply, “Yes.”
Despite holding convictions that her parents and husband object to, Abby’s very sincere in her desire to help women. She believes she’s doing good. And she genuinely—though mistakenly—believes that a tiny fetus is just a blob of unfeeling tissue. (These are all convictions she’ll eventually disavow.)
Though she holds on to those beliefs for much of the film, when Abby witnesses an abortion on an ultrasound, it’s a horrific, transformative moment. She can no longer deny that abortion means the death of a human being, one that does indeed feel pain.
Abby’s husband and parents, as well as members of the Coalition for Life, patiently, prayerfully hope that Abby will change her mind. At times, they voice their own pro-life convictions firmly. But they’re never belligerent about it. That combination of gentleness and faithfulness also plays a role in Abby’s change of heart.
Two leaders of the pro-life group, Shawn Carney and his fiancée (and eventual wife), Marilisa, turn up faithfully every Saturday to pray and to respectfully engage with women entering the clinic. (Another group of protestors isn’t nearly as winsome.) Marilisa tells one woman, “Your little baby has a beating heart, and she loves you with all of it.”
Shawn, Marilisa and other protestors have often wondered whether their faithful efforts really accomplished anything. But after her conversion to the pro-life perspective, Abby tells them that Planned Parenthood’s internal research documents the effectiveness of their mere presence: “Planned Parenthood’s own statistics show that if someone’s praying out there, it [the abortion appointment no-show rate] can go as high as 75%,” Abby says.
Once Abby joins Shawn and Marilisa on the other side of the fence, she talks to one young abortion-minded woman. Abby tells her, “The truth is, they can get rid of your baby, but they can’t get rid of the memory of your baby. And neither can you. No matter how hard you try.”
After Abby’s former clinic closes, she and her new pro-life compatriots mark the event with a ceremony where they put roses on the fence. Abby reads a letter she’s written to her own two aborted children, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t fight for you. … And I think about you every day.” (Elsewhere in the film, Abby and Doug do have a baby girl; they’re loving and attentive parents as she grows.)
As mentioned, Shawn, Marilisa and their group frequently pray in front of the clinic. Elsewhere, a poster says, “Pray to end abortion.” We see Shawn pray over two 55-gallon containers that contain discarded pieces of aborted fetuses.
Abby and Doug attend a church. In one sermon, they hear a pastor quote Psalm 139:13-14: “For you created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. All your works are wonderful, and I know them full well.” The pastor says, “In the silence of the womb, God is still finishing people in His likeness and in His image.” And when Abby unexpectedly gets pregnant, even though Abby’s on birth control, her mom says, “Sometimes the Lord just has a plan.” Someone else uses the phrase, “Sweatin’ like the devil on Easter morning.”
In a conversation at the clinic between employees, one woman who’s Catholic says, “I don’t care what anyone says, I know that I’m doing God’s work here.” Similarly, Abby responds to her husband’s concerns about her possible promotion to clinic director by saying, “If I get the job, I’ll know that it’s His will for me to run the clinic.” (Doug gently challenges that spiritual-sounding rationalization.)
After Abby leaves the clinic, she’s overwhelmed with guilt. She tells Doug, weeping, “I have been complicit in over 22,000 abortions. That is the weight of my guilt. How do I even begin to comprehend that?”
Doug wisely responds, “You can’t, baby. No one can. All you can do is say you’re sorry and beg forgiveness.” A bit later he adds, “Abby, look at me: I love you, and so does God. He’ll forgive you if you ask.”
“I can’t believe that. How? How can he?” Abby says.
“Because he’s God.”
Abby tells us she was sexually active in college (though we don’t see any of that activity), which led to her first abortion and a second one after she and Mark get married. Premarital sexual activity is obviously something her parents disapproved of.
Many women seeking abortions are very young. One is a high school girl whom Abby knows (apparently, it’s perhaps implied, from church) whose father has brought her in to get an abortion.
We see Abby and Doug in bed (in pajamas), and Abby makes a suggestive remark about the possibility of sex, saying, “I might get lucky.”
This film has earned an R-rating for several scenes that, while not as graphic as they could have been, are still very difficult to watch. And please note: My descriptions of these scenes here will be quite graphic, too.
Early on, we witness an abortion procedure Abby helps with. She’s asked to hold the ultrasound monitor while a doctor performs the abortion. Before the hose-like implement he inserts reaches a woman’s uterus (activity that’s implied but not shown), we see what looks like a normal ultrasound of a fetus moving around. Once the probe reaches the uterus, however, the doctor crudely says, “Beam me up, Scotty!” and turns on the vacuum-like machine performing the abortion. Abby, and we, watch as the baby tries to escape, “swimming” away as its limbs are sucked off one by one. With each, we see red, goopy matter flowing through the hose into a container. It’s an emotionally brutal scene, and it’s among the most difficult scenes I’ve ever witnessed on film.
Another abortion procedure involves a high school girl whose uterus is inadvertently perforated. She’s shown with blood oozing down her legs in a chair afterward, then back in a surgical procedure room as the doctor tries to get the bleeding stopped. The clinic’s director at the time—a woman named Cheryl—says that they never call 911 or take someone to a hospital emergency room, since the ensuing negative publicity would spotlight some of the inherent health risks of abortion. The girl nearly dies, but they never tell her waiting father that there was a complication. After the dramatic scene, several employees clean up the badly bloodied procedure room.
We see Abby, briefly, as she has her first abortion. Her second abortion is chemically induced, and it results in another very intense scene. She’s told that RU-486 will “gently empty out her uterus,” something that supposedly shouldn’t be much more difficult than a heavy period. It is. We watch as Abby is racked by horrible pain and bleeds profusely. She’s shown in the shower (she’s wearing a shirt), with blood and large clots streaming down her thighs. She scoops up the pieces and puts them in the toilet, but continues to bleed. At the end of the scene, she’s unconscious on the bathroom floor, with blood in the sink, on the floor, in the toilet, in the shower and all over Abby.
Early in Abby’s career, she’s invited into the “POC” room. That acronym stands for “products of conception,” though another employee grimly calls them “pieces of children.” Indeed, a group of doctors must reconstruct the pieces of each aborted fetus to make sure that they got them all out. We see Abby examining a tiny detached arm and a fetus’s human-shaped head and face.
Abby and Doug are deeply shaken by news reports of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller being shot and killed in his church.
We hear plans for a huge new Planned Parenthood clinic that will provide abortions to pregnant women who are as far along as 24 weeks.
We hear three uses of “p-ss,” two uses of “h—” and one use each of “a–” and “d–mit.” There are also three or four instances of “oh my gosh,” one of which sounded like it could be a misuse of God’s name.
Abby and Doug have a margarita and a beer, respectively. Abby drinks wine at home.
The movie’s main antagonist is Abby’s cold and heartless boss, Cheryl. She tries to disabuse Abby of the notion that Planned Parenthood is interested in abortion being “rare,” as is sometimes stated. Instead, she says that abortion is what pays for everything at Planned Parenthood.
Cheryl tells Abby that pro-lifers are “like vultures.” When Abby switches sides, Cheryl threatens her by saying Planned Parenthood is a “billion-dollar corporation” that receives money from “Soros, Gates and Buffett.” (A lawsuit ensues.)
Abby lies to her daughter at one point when the little girl asks her mom why her shoes are covered in blood.
In contrast to the Coalition for Life members, another group of abortion protesters uses much more aggressive dissuasion tactics. They hold pictures of dismembered fetuses. One wears a Grim Reaper costume. And they lob mean-spirited verbal taunts. A guy waving a Bible yells, “Hey, princess, does your daddy know that you’re here? Killing his little grandbaby right now?” Then he spits, “No matter what important things you do in life, you’re still gonna be a baby killer. And all this because you couldn’t keep your legs closed.”
Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s not just merely “good.” Or merely “must see” water-cooler fare. I’m talking about films that are genuinely important because they force us to see something clearly that perhaps we’ve never really seen before. Oftentimes, these can be gritty, graphic, difficult-to-sit-through films.
I’d put Schindler’s List in that category. And Saving Private Ryan. And Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Not surprisingly, perhaps, all of those movies are rated R. They pull no punches in their detailed depiction of difficult, violent realities.
I’d put Unplanned in the same category as these films in terms of the emotional wallop it packs. Like them, Unplanned forces us to look at an awful reality that we might be tempted to minimize. The film’s depiction of a fetus being sucked, limb by limb, from its mother’s womb cannot be unseen.
But unlike so much of our culture’s fascination and infatuation with gore and violence, that scene depicts something that really happens. Since 1973, an estimated 56 million abortions have been performed in the United States. Sixty million souls knit together in God’s image. Sixty million souls that never drew a breath. It’s a moral travesty that’s incomprehensible in its scope.
Unplanned is an important film because it makes us consider the moral weight of this otherwise mind-numbing statistic. Through the eyes of one woman who once believed she was doing good, we see the horror of abortion for what it truly is.
To find theaters in your area where Unplanned is playing, go to unplannedtickets.com.
To learn more about Focus on the Family’s efforts on behalf of the preborn, including our “Declaration for Life” and upcoming Alive From New York event, check out our pro-life articles and resources page.
And be sure to take a look or a listen to our interview with Unplanned star Ashley Bratcher.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.