An Unplanned Life — A Movie Review
The current intellectual conceit is to begin a scholarly paper with a statement of one’s biases, so here are mine: as many of you know, I wrote the novel Solomon’s Knife, in which I proposed fetal transfer (transoption) as a solution to the pro-life/pro-choice schism over pregnancy termination. I wrote it because I believe in genetics, so I believe that a fetus is something unique: a recombinant DNA experiment in which a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg mix together to create an entirely different individual. And — as a libertarian — I believe in an individual’s right to life and self-ownership, which includes both a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy and the right of a baby not to be killed. The only way to reconcile this seeming clash of rights is to recognize that a woman has the right to expel the fetus, but not to kill it, just as a homeowner has the right to evict a tenant but not murder him. And, on the other side, anyone has the right to rescue that expelled fetus, but not to force the woman to carry it to term.
So you can call me anti-abortion if you want, but the word abortion must be broken down into its two concepts: terminating a pregnancy and terminating a life. Since I also believe in science, innovation, and human ingenuity, I believe that a technological solution to this impasse is possible. In my novel, it was non-destructive surgical transfer of the fetus from a woman who does not want it into the womb of a woman who does. Two reproductive problems solved with one baby. Prenatal adoption. Transoption.
I’m also compelled to offer a Spoiler Alert: stop reading here if you haven’t figured out that the film I’m reviewing is anti-abortion and its main character goes from pro-choice to pro-life by the end of it. Hope that doesn’t ruin the movie for you...
Enough of that. This is a review of the new motion picture Unplanned, the story of how the based-on-real-life character Abby Johnson went from being the 2009 Planned Parenthood Employee of the Year and director of a busy abortion clinic in Texas(!) to a faith-based anti-abortion activist, virtually overnight. Abby, played by Ashley (90 Minutes in Heaven) Bratcher, has had two abortions — one as a teenager and one while married to a man whom she was divorcing — so she sees no problem getting a job at the local Planned Parenthood clinic.
As her job titles and responsibilities climb, she (and we) are gradually let in on the secrets of the abortion industry: the ultrasounds that are used to determine the size of the fetus (and thus the cost of the abortion); the standing order that no one is to call 911 for any patient medical emergency (to avoid negative optics); and the ultimate horror — which shocked and haunted the otherwise indefatigable Abby (and which netted the film its unprecedented R-rating) — using ultrasound imaging to guide the suction tube toward a 12th-week fetus as it frantically and futilely attempts to kick itself away from the device’s deadly pull.
Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon — the writing team responsible for God’s Not Dead and its sequel as well as the cult-classic vampire movie The Insatiable — team up to write and direct Unplanned. The film is superbly shot by Drew Maw and tautly edited by Parker Adams and Dana B. Wilson. The score — by Blake Kanicka — deftly jumps between extremes of tense, terrifying edginess that recalls (but does not emulate) Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score, and soaring warmth and even humor at all the right emotional pivot points.
A standout performance from Robia (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) Scott as Cheryl, Abby’s boss, takes her from passionate supporter of a woman’s right to choose to a cold, calculating, bottom-line-obsessed dollar-chaser in the eight-year story arc. Emma Elle Roberts and Jared Lotz portray abortion protestors who are not angry, not accusatory, but ready to engage with Abby to the point where they exchange daily greetings and discuss their simultaneous pregnancies despite the vast moral and philosophical gulf that separates them. Tina Toner plays a dead-in-the-soul clinic employee to understated — yet chilling — perfection. The movie is not without its humorous moments, however, one of them being Cheryl having no problem with a pregnant director of an abortion clinic: seeing Abby that way, she muses with a wicked smile, will convince them that they’ll never want children.
Ashley Bratcher’s performance as Abby, though, is the one that deserves the most praise. It is a rare film of any kind that can play totally fairly with both sides of a controversy and have an actor that can convincingly inhabit two rhetorical extremes with equal aplomb. It is far easier to create straw men (or — more appropriately here — straw women) to spout ignorant, bigoted, or even nonsensical lines the writers set up for the protagonist to knock down. Such films and novels rarely ring true and almost never change minds. They are the stuff of propaganda. In Solomon’s Knife, I tried to present the best arguments the pro-choice and pro-life factions could muster regarding abortion and human rights. I did not expect to see such even-handed treatment from faith-based, conservative Christian filmmakers any more than I would a film made by secular progressive socialist feminist filmmakers. But I sat in awed amazement at the fair-minded, non-judgmental treatment of Abby Johnson in both phases of her life. (Admittedly, the screenplay was adapted from her biography of the same title, so she undoubtedly provided the most sympathetic portrait of herself at each point of her journey.)
It’s easy to understand how a college-aged Abby could receive a pamphlet from an enthusiastic Planned Parenthood advocate and have it all make sense to her in an Our Bodies Our Selves cultural framework. We see her volunteer at the organization that promised her it was working toward reducing the number of abortions by promoting contraception. Her passionate defense of her choice seems natural and deeply felt, and the conflict between Abby and her Christian parents, husband, and friends is evenly balanced without caricature or specious reasoning on either side.
From there, though, each step up in the organization comes with incremental compromises and little self-deceptions that become bigger and bigger until — when Cheryl announces that their new, 7,800 square-foot clinic will be able to perform abortions seven days a week, up to the 24th week — Abby is forced to realize that Planned Parenthood’s true goal is to ratchet up the number of abortions as high as possible. Abortion, Cheryl fiercely tells her, is the low-cost, high-margin product that pays their salary, their 401k match, their health insurance. “Non-profit,” she declares, “is a tax status, not a business plan.”
It should come as no surprise that Abby bolts from this bottomless pit of death and misery to join the opposition: the Coalition for Life and its 40 Days for Life prayer vigils. I’ll leave a couple of plot twists at the very end for you to discover, with an “oh wow!” endnote that is the pro-family match of any closing-credit Easter egg in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If you wonder how anyone could ever work in an abortion clinic, maybe this refreshingly balanced tale will explain how it can happen. If you are puzzled that anyone could believe a tiny fetus is something more than a bit of tissue — that it is an individual, genetically distinct human being with a right to life granted by “Nature and Nature’s God” and defended by the Constitution — you might find Abby Johnson’s sojourn illuminating.
Don’t just plan to see Unplanned. See it today.