‘Apparently you have a super-human marriage,” actress Margaret Colin (of Independence Day fame) said to Abby Johnson after an early screening of the movie Unplanned, which tells her conversion story. Abby had been a director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas. Through a series of events, the pivotal one being her participation in an ultrasound-guided abortion, she decided to leave her job. Unplanned, which will be in theaters at the end of March, will naturally attract self-consciously pro-life people familiar with Abby’s story. Colin, who has been active with Feminists for Life and is not shy to share her opposition to abortion, had what I am told is a frequent response to the movie — and was mine as well: It’s a love story full of hope. For individuals, for marriage, for our politics, and for our culture.
Unplanned can be the occasion for a healthy examination of conscience for everyone. Early in the movie, Abby’s first visit to the clinic where she would later become director is depicted, complete with a man screaming rude things at the women walking in for abortions (on Saturday, the day they did them) and at the staff ushering them in. That kind of verbal abuse wasn’t the approach of the Coalition for Life folks whom Abby developed a relationship with through a fence over the years. Loving kindness makes a difference. It helped pave the way for Abby, who knocked on their door one day to say she wanted out.
Abby only ever wanted to help women. She had two abortions herself. She knew they weren’t pretty. She knew they weren’t ideal. She didn’t want women to have to have abortions, but she wasn’t going to take the choice away from anyone. The more she learned, however, about the corporate bottom line at Planned Parenthood, and the more she saw the cycle of despair it perpetuated, she wanted more for women. She couldn’t be a part of the taking of lives once she saw what she saw on the ultrasound screen — a baby pulling away.
Chris Jones, the producer of Unplanned, told me, at the pre-screening at the Sheen Center in Manhattan, that he and his partners wanted to make the movie in 2011, when Abby’s book was first published. But they prayed about it and had the sense it wasn’t the right time. That the movie is released now, when there is such open discussion about the details of late-term abortion is breathtaking. A bill in the Senate is getting people on the record about survivors of late-term abortions. At the same time, the discussion over late-term abortions gives us the opportunity to think about abortion in all three trimesters: Do we see this? Do we need to do this? Is there another way to help women? Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we be doing more to support community health centers that don’t have so much to do with abortion?
There are so many other questions Unplanned raises: Do we love one another? Truly, in beautifully painful ways? Across a fence? I may believe there’s evil happening inside, but do I love the people anyway? I may pray for their conversions, but do I also pray for their families, and pray that they know love? You may think I’m a hack writing about abortion again, but can we respect one another and see the good in one another? Can we work together on something?
The other day I was at a press conference where Catholics in New York reaffirmed a pledge to help any woman who finds herself pregnant and in difficult circumstances and without support. And testimony from a mother from Ethiopia whose young daughter was running around the press made clear that the love that the Sisters of Life have given her and her daughter did not stop when she gave birth. The sisters remain a part of the lives of both the girl and her mother.
A few hours before I saw the movie with Abby and actress Ashley Bratcher and producer Jones, I went to confession. As I walked out of the confessional, I saw a man who seemed to have all his belongings in a busted suitcase blow a kiss inside the church. The movie does something similar. It’s a love letter across the fence of our miserable politics, a fence that in recent years has strained family relationships and broken up friendships. Obviously, if you work for Planned Parenthood or, like the governor of New York, apparently, among others, you wake up in the morning motivated by abortion rights and their expansion, you’re probably not going to be delighted by it, or even bother to see it. But people do change their minds. We watched Unplanned on the anniversary of the 2011 death of Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who changed his mind after performing 75,000 abortions and having helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. Unplanned could help viewers consider a fresh start, so I hope many consider seeing it. I don’t expect a thousand Nathanson-like conversions—perhaps nudges, though, toward something better. Watch it with humility, whoever you are. We all have something to learn from it, about the power of love.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.