Unplanned Searches for a Broad Audience but Gets Lost in Its Advocacy

The anti-abortion movie Unplanned opens in Canadian movie theaters on July 12th. It’s commercial theater release has already created controversy: At least two theaters have cancelled showings based on threatened violence by the movie’s critics. 

The threatened violence is ironic. The movie’s pro-life theme and narrative is consciously crafted to promote themes of grace, forgiveness, unqualified love for the individual, and universal human dignity.

Unplanned‘s narrative does a surprisingly good job of humanizing and criticizing both sides of the issue, reflecting the conflicted evolution of the movie’s protagonist, former abortion clinic director Abby Johnson. The movie doesn’t demonize the clinic workers, abortion seekers, or professionals working in the industry. Quite the opposite. Johnson is shown as a compassionate boss with loyal employees. Johnson’s conversion to anti-abortion advocacy is a personal story, not an evangelical revolution. 

Moreover, Unplanned intentionally marginalizes the “fire and brimstone” evangelists who focus on brow-beating, intimidation and shaming young women and their families seeking an abortion. This compassion probably comes from Johnson’s own experience as a young woman who, according to the movie, had two abortions in her own life.

While its producers likely hoped their film would reach a broad general audience, Unplanned has grossed just $18 million after eleven weeks running in the United States. While substantial for an independent film, these thresholds are well below levels indicating the movie has connected to a large general audience. The movie is also unlikely to expand its commercial market. Unplanned suffers from a number of narrative and storytelling weaknesses that are likely to limit its reach beyond evangelical Christians and anti-abortion advocates. This is unfortunate because Johnson’s personal journey is compelling.

Unplanned chronicles the controversial spiritual and ethical evolution of Abby Johnson (Ashley Bratcher), a Christian who became one of the nation’s youngest directors of an abortion clinic. Johnson started out as an idealistic Christian investing in young women to help them make better life choices. She ended up becoming one of the nation’s most visible and radical anti-abortion advocates. 

What caused Johnson’s professional conversion? This is a critical question that drives the story, and the outcome, and her conversion is rooted in her faith. Unplanned doesn’t pull punches on spiritual failings or the human capacity to work in denial. The movie is also narrated by the lead character. This creative choice keeps forward momentum throughout the movie as Johnson faces her own personal trials and disapproval from her own Christian family. 

Pro-choice advocates are not happy with the movie in part because of the graphic nature of some of the scenes. The movie (appropriately) earned its R rating through its visceral depiction of late-term abortions and the medical risks associated with procedures that go wrong. Unplanned also caricature’s Planned Parenthood as an organizationally ruthless operation that both demonizes protesters and obscures the organization’s intent to promote abortions. The movie relies on familiar anti-business tropes to make its point. At one point, for example, the Cheryl (Robia Scott), the Texas director of the organization, says, “Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model” to justify their pursuit of funding for abortions. (Note: I use this phrase to make the opposite point in my seminars on social entrepreneurship Florida State University, pointing out that profits allow businesses to expand their social benefit.)

The problem with many films driving home a principle is that the antagonists, in this case Abby’s boss, come off as two dimensional and less fully realized characters. This is the case in Unplanned where Cheryl is never given the same level of humanity as Johnson, her family, or her supporters. Actors Ashley Bratcher (Abby Johnson) and Brooks Ryan (who plays her husband Doug) have real chemistry on the screen as they grapple with Johnson’s conflicted views on her profession. While Bratcher’s acting often comes off as more distant and forced, their on-screen chemistry leads to a heartfelt climax when Abby faces the consequences of her personal and professional choices. These scenes earned tears from the audience.

Unplanned, however, is not a documentary. It uses facts to drive the story, and often it obscures more than it clarifies. Abortion is clearly a significant social issue, not just one of reproductive rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank founded in 1968 to advance “sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally,” about 20 percent of pregnancies in the United States end in an abortion (excluding miscarriages). The termination of human life on such a large scale is troubling and has deep social implications.

But the movie exaggerates to make a larger point that inadvertently minimizes the personal transformation of its lead character. Unplanned, for example, conveys through its scenes and plot points the idea that most abortions are late-term. In reality, the vast majority of abortions are in the early stages of pregnancy. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 91.1 percent of abortions are performed within 13 weeks (out of an average 40 week pregnancy). Only 1.3 percent were performed after 21 weeks. (See also the data from Guttmacher Institute here.) Moreover, the Guttmacher Institute notes that first-trimester abortions are among the safest medical procedures in the United States. 

While Unplanned characterizes Planned Parenthood, a $1.4 billion organization, as an abortion mill, just 3.4 percent of its expenses are devoted to abortion services, according to its 2017-2018 annual report (available online here). Nearly half its budget goes to the testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. Planned Parenthood performed 332,757 abortion procedures, but it also conducted 4.7 million procedures for sexually transmitted diseases. It performed 2.6 million procedures to promote contraception and distributed another 631,510 emergency contraception kits. Clearly, the organization is much more than just abortions.

Overall, Unplanned may represent a new era of Christian films that puts more emphasis on inclusiveness, tolerance of human frailty, and forgiveness as a cornerstone of social ethics. These themes have the potential to significantly broaden its appeal to general audiences. In the end, however, Unplanned follows an advocacy narrative that limits its ability to reach this broad audience. Those in favor of reproductive rights will find little in the movie or its story that will sway them. Abby Johnson’s story is compelling, but once skeptics take to the internet, they will likely find her story much less compelling when faced with facts. Unfortunately, her personal journey is lost in the advocacy. 

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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