Unplanned and Contemporary Pro-Life Activism
By Katherine Dugan.
Unplanned: What She Saw Changed Everything is the newest pro-life film to hit mainstream movie theaters. Released in late March 2019, Unplanned follows the young adulthood of Abby Johnson. Abby is depicted as a bright-eyed woman who wants to, as she puts it, “do good in the world.” Based on her memoir, the film begins with her days as a college student at Texas A&M and chronicles her quick rise to director of her local Planned Parenthood clinic. The emotional peak of the movie is when Abby sees an abortion take place with the aid of an ultrasound. She walks out a few days later and does not return. Instead, she begins working for the anti-abortion advocacy group, 40 Days for Life. Abby Johnson’s story has become a rallying cry for a twenty-first century version of the pro-life and anti-abortion movement.
In the weeks since I watched Unplanned at my local Regal Cinemas, it has dawned on me that this movie instructs the pro-life movement in how to comport themselves. It compels viewers to be a softer, gentler, and decidedly younger pro-life movement. Unplanned presents a case study in effective activism against abortion.
I am in the midst of ethnographic research about the codependent issue of birth control and Natural Family Planning among US Catholics. Immersed in a world worried about reproductive ethics, I had heard a lot of anticipation of this movie among my interlocutors; I watched Facebook-based discussions in Catholic women’s groups about it, listened to NPR stories about a suit by the movie’s producers against Twitter, and watched Abby Johnson be interviewed with the actress who played her. Newman centers on college campuses have had private viewings; parish groups have purchased group tickets; diocesan offices hosted discussion groups about Unplanned. I spent a Friday night in April watching this movie because I wanted to understand both the appeal and the message of this movie.
The intended audience of the movie appears, at first, to be pro-choice voters. The movie’s R rating seems based on several gory depictions of abortion aimed at, as others have commented, cultivating fear about abortion. The goal seems to be changing their minds. Planned Parenthood’s state-wide director is depicted as a bully who is focused on making money through abortions. The first enemy in this movie is what the producers call the “abortion industry.”
At the same time, pro-lifers outside the clinic who shout and yell at women are also derided as zealots by the movie’s producers. An old man shouting—while waving a Bible around—at women entering the clinic, is cast in a negative light. In contrast, the pro-life activists of 40 Days for Life, including Shawn Carney and his wife, pray at Abby’s clinic every day. Unplanned encourages a version of pro-life activism that depends on individuals’ transformation. Abby is a sympathetic protagonist. She had two abortions as a young woman, along with a tumultuous first marriage. She started volunteering with Planned Parenthood because she wanted to help women—and describers her departure as based on that same desire. Throughout the movie, Abby’s pro-life activist friends patiently wait for her to change her mind about abortion. Her story is the stuff of dramatic transformation, one many viewers undoubtedly hope will be replicated across the country.
While Abby is the centerpiece of the movie, I think these young activists are the real story of Unplanned. These activists are in their 20s and presented as shiny, bright-eyed, and optimistic. They are white and middle class and well-educated. Throughout the movie, they are cast as worried about the women walking into the clinic. They are quiet and do not shout; they spend the first hour of the movie mostly praying. When Abby runs for solace at the offices of 40 Days for Life, they offer her comfort and a job.
These activists favored by the movie’s producers are always depicted as calm; stalwart; quietly persistent—and triumphant in the end. Not only did Abby have a dramatic change of heart, the clinic that Abby ran for five years shut down a few years after she left. Closing Planned Parenthood clinics is an ultimate success for activists like Carney. The concluding scenes of the movie show Abby and other pro-lifers cheering as the construction workers tear down the building.
I have been watching the impact of this movie ripple through pro-life groups. Not unlike Francis Schaeffer’s 1979 Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and the 1984 The Silent Scream, Unplanned is becoming a tool for re-energizing pro-lifers. Recent laws limiting access to abortion have collided with the movie’s release. This is creating fodder for hope that abortion access can be as limited as possible—among those who happily paid to watch the 110-minute movie.
As increasingly strict anti-abortion laws are being passed in states across the country, there have been myriad media responses to Unplanned: Newsweek wrote about it and Planned Parenthood responded by pointing out inconsistencies in Johnson’s account. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted his support of the movie. Catholic outlets have been undecided about the movie—the Jesuit America gave a mixed review while the socially conservative National Catholic Register reviewed the movie positively.
Despite the mixed response, pro-life groups are celebrating the movie. The real-life Abby Johnson recently posted a picture on her Instagram account showing the advertisement for Unplanned in Times Square. As the movie continues to attract viewers (grossing over $18 million so far), it presents pro-life activism in the U.S. as normal, mainstream. The movie has a clear message about what kind of activism works: prayer, conversations, persistent presence. This matters now because abortion laws are being challenged across the country. There is a sense among pro-life activists that this is a moment to be seized—and Unplanned is both motivating and instructing its audience on how to capitalize on it.
Katherine Dugan is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College in Massachusetts and the author of Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism (Oxford 2019). Her current research is on Catholics and family planning in the contemporary U.S.