Last week, the movie Unplanned opened in theaters across the country. Centered on the life of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director turned pro-life activist, Unplanned is controversial not only for its clear pro-life message but for its accurate portrayal of Planned Parenthood as profitable business built on providing abortions — despite its claim that it doesn’t focus on abortion procedures.
While this movie is sure to rile Planned Parenthood supporters, abortion activists are mostly worried about one small but critical part of the movie — the scene where Johnson and the audience view a sonogram of a baby being aborted.
It’s a deeply unsettling scene that will collapse the modern narrative that aborted babies are just fetuses unable to feel pain. It might make people reevaluate their position on abortion. It could even change minds.
I’ve seen it happen.
In high school, I worked at a small, family-owned video store. In the back of the store, behind the neatly stacked rows of VHS display boxes was a small VCR repair shop manned by a quiet, mild-mannered, slightly hippy-ish-looking man. He mostly kept to himself tinkering on broken video machines and other small electronics and kept his conversation to a mumbled “hello” and “goodbye” as he came and went from the video store. I knew very little about him except that he was married and had two small children.
It was a slow evening at the video store the day it happened. I was working at the store alone. Repairman was in the back. I was sitting on an uncomfortable wooden stool behind the counter. On the small television suspended from the ceiling, I was watching my favorite Merchant Ivory film, A Room with a View, for probably the 100th time. When Repairman emerged from his shop, I could see his eyes were red-rimmed and glistening with tears. Dazed, he looked straight ahead and walked slowly to the counter where he steadied himself.
After what seemed like an eternity, he finally turned to me, stuttered, and said, “Someone left a video in the VCR I was repairing. I saw it.”
My mind raced. Was it a sex tape? A murder? Did someone kill a dog and film it? What could it be?
“It was a video of an abortion,” he said, his lip quivering.
I’ve been pro-life since I can remember understanding the concept of abortion. I was raised by a strong Catholic mother and a Deist father who read Popular Mechanics in the church parking lot while my mom, sister, and I went to weekly Mass. My mom was passionately pro-life. She volunteered for Birthright — a pro-life organization that had a chapter in the larger town up the road from our small farming community. So regular were our discussions about abortion around the dinner table that it didn’t even occur to us that we should change the subject when our friends were in the house or when they stayed for dinner. To my family, abortion was an important issue worth discussing, and there was no shame in bringing people into the conversation. In fact, we enjoyed debate, so disagreement was welcome, if not entirely respected.
Years later, we learned that these conversations had an effect. When I was in college, a friend of mine, who had spent hours in our house passively listening to these conversations, called my mother to tell her that her that the memory of those conversations and debates had persuaded her to continue her pregnancy and keep her first child instead of having an abortion. Her son’s conception was unplanned and very inconvenient, but she felt compelled to keep her child, mostly because of they way in which my family always humanized a baby in the womb. She knew it was a baby — her baby.
In high school, I was a spirited debater on the subject, enduring both the stinging insults (“you’re a f***ing religious weirdo”) and the utterly stupid comments (“if you’re so pro-life, how can you eat eggs?” which someone actually said to me in the school cafeteria while I ate an egg-salad sandwich).
So when Repairman emerged from that room emotionally shredded and totally confused, I felt prepared to walk him through the horror he’d just seen.
That night, in the quiet video store, we discussed the video and the reality of abortion (I suspect someone left Silent Scream in the VCR and either intentionally or unintentionally had forgotten to remove it before drop off). He was so disturbed at the sight of the baby screaming in agony, and its attempts to get away from the instruments inserted into the women’s body, that he immediately was repulsed by the idea of abortion. He explained that he’d always been pro-abortion but that really, he hadn’t thought much about the issue.
The most profound moment came when Repairman said, “If more people saw that video, there would be no abortion. No one would do that to a baby!”
I have been thinking a lot about Repairman and his reaction this week. That incident in the video store almost 30 years ago helps me better understand why Unplanned scares so many in the abortion industry. The movie might just do what Repairman predicted: change minds.
It also explains why there is a well-coordinated effort afoot to marginalize the movie and to make it disappear. For instance, several prominent cable networks — Lifetime, Hallmark Channel, HGTV, the Travel Channel, the Cooking Channel, and the Food Network — have all refused to allow ads for the movie, saying it’s due to its “sensitive nature.” Meanwhile, movies about rape, kidnappings, incest, mass murder, and child abuse are all given ad space.
On the movie’s opening weekend, Twitter even suspended the movie’s Twitter account and then gave some completely convoluted reason for the move. But we know why. Despite this media blackout, Unplanned made a strong debut on its opening weekend (meanwhile, Disney’s star-studded movie Dumbo, which opened the same weekend, flopped).
Unplanned is a major inconvenience to those who want to keep information about the abortion industry quiet. Planned Parenthood knows it must keep people in the dark if it is going to survive. But this strategy won’t work in the information age. This small-budget, independent movie is a modern-day Silent Scream, and, like my repairman, the world is about to wake up from its daze.