“Unplanned” isn’t a good movie, but it’s effective propaganda — or, at least, it is if you belong to the group it’s targeting: those who believe that abortion in America, though a legal right, is really a crime. It’s hard to imagine the movie drawing many viewers outside that self-selected demographic. “Unplanned” preaches to the pro-life choir, and it does so by making a case against abortion that’s absolutist and extreme, at certain points twisting “facts” into a narrative of conspiracy. (Planned Parenthood is portrayed as a corporation as profit-driven as Standard Oil.)
But “Unplanned” also does a skillful job of using religious piety to conceal its underlying political agenda. The film is based on a memoir by Abby Johnson, an anti-abortion activist who worked for eight years in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas. She started off as a volunteer, ushering women from their cars past the protesters at the gates, then rose to become the clinic’s director, overseeing thousands of abortions; early on, she had two abortions herself. The movie is a conversion story about how Johnson evolved from her pro-choice stance to the belief that abortion — any abortion — is wrong. She joined the activist organization that became 40 Days for Life, and at the end of the movie a title states that another anti-abortion group, And Then There Were None, has gotten 500 workers to drop out of what it describes as “the abortion industry.” It offers a phone number for others just like them to call.
Yet the notion that abortions in America would end if only those who provided them experienced a leap of conscience is nothing more than a canard, a fig leaf for the film’s real agenda. “Unplanned” comes along at a moment when the Supreme Court is tilted, for the first time since the ’60s, in a profoundly conservative direction, and when abortion laws are being eaten away at by state legislatures and conservative judges. The movie comes on like it’s trying to make converts, but what it’s really doing is mobilizing those on the pro-life side to come out and vote for politicians who will step up the legal assault on abortion rights. The movie fuses melodramatic manipulation and cold calculation. It may look like it’s preaching, but it’s really campaigning.
It starts off as a pro-life alarmist horror movie, and that’s not a hard thing to do, since Abby, even when she’s in her pro-choice phase, makes the point that “abortion isn’t pretty.” Abby is played, by the appealing Ashley Bratcher, as less a crusader than an avid ordinary woman, full of sisterly feeling she yearns to make active, even as she marries a saintly Christian hunk (Brooks Ryan) who’s completely anti-abortion, as are both her parents. (And they’re all so serene about it; it’s as if you go pro-life and become one of the blessed, losing any anger or self-doubt.) “Unplanned” opens with the experience, eight years into Abby’s stint at Planned Parenthood, that resulted in her final turn against abortion. After never having actually witnessed one, she’s suddenly called in to assist in the ultrasound-guided abortion of a 13-week-old fetus, and what she sees on the monitor looks to her like a baby reacting to what’s being done to it.
The movie then flashes back eight years, and we witness several incidents that escalate in calamity: Abby’s first abortion (the result of a relationship with an older lout in her apartment building), then her second (after she marries and divorces the bum), induced with the RU-486 pill, which a woman at the clinic tells her will make it easy, with just some “light” bleeding. Instead, after ingesting the pill, Abby thinks she’s dying, as she’s wracked by excruciating pain and the bleeding turns out to be anything but light.
This is followed by the queasy moral horror Abby feels when a high-school girl, brought into the clinic by her father, experiences severe bleeding and other complications, and the head of the clinic, the take-no-prisoners women’s-rights activist Cheryl (Robia Scott), refuses to call an ambulance. That’s because the protesters would see — and potentially film — the ambulance, and it would therefore hurt the cause.
Clearly, for a health clinic to refuse appropriate medical care to anyone is indefensible. Yet the directors of “Unplanned,” Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, seem immune to the fact that Cheryl’s dastardly motivation — she’s loathe to do anything that could help the other side — wouldn’t be there in the first place if the legal right to abortion weren’t on such thin ice. Do the protesters share any culpability? Of course they don’t! In “Unplanned,” trauma and inhumanity cut only one way. The film, which is told in the flat didactic style of an ideological Sunday-school lesson, isn’t interested in the actual lives of the girls and women who want to end their pregnancies. It simply views their choice as wrong and says that their lives, by definition, would work out better if they made a different choice. The risk and cataclysm of illegal abortion is, of course, never mentioned.
At an expo, a Planned Parenthood representative convinces Abby that the organization is all about reducing the number of abortions (which, among other things, it is). And that’s why she joins. But from the moment she volunteers, she’s drawn into a sympathetic dialogue with the protesters outside. A few of them are bellicose, carrying photographs of mangled fetuses, but the members of the Coalition for Life are kinder and gentler. They don’t believe in strong-arm tactics; they believe in persuasion through love. Cheryl, who ultimately anoints Abby to be director of the clinic, is portrayed as a corporate witch — the Cruella de Vil of abortion — who greets any questioning of her methods as heresy. It’s she who reveals what the movie presents as the dirty secret of Planned Parenthood: that the organization makes the most money off abortion, and therefore — according to “Unplanned” — its hidden agenda is to maximize the number of abortion procedures it performs. The organization is portrayed as an abortion factory.
Planned Parenthood is as imperfect as any bureaucracy, but the idea that the agonizing decision to have an abortion, for tens of thousands of women, is being secretly guided by the profit motive is a distorted and arguably paranoid view. But it plays into the current flavor of right-wing rage, which co-opts the anti-establishment tropes of the ’60s, resulting in the kind of faux-rebel fever that allowed Donald Trump to ascend by running against big government and big business. In “Unplanned,” babies, families, and Christian love are all under assault by the abortion industry. The only salvation comes when Abby stares at an ultrasound image and sees the light. There’s no arguing with this point of view, and that’s the whole problem with it. “Unplanned” views humanity itself in black and white.