After a day on the job at Planned Parenthood, Abby Johnson greets her young daughter — who stares in concern and asks her mother why there’s blood spattered on her white sneakers. Abby replies that she helped a woman who had a nosebleed.
But her husband knows better. “Nobody ever said abortion was pretty,” she tells him defensively after their daughter has left the room.
That scene, which comes about halfway through the gut-wrenching film Unplanned, gets to the heart of what the movie accomplishes so well. Its resounding success, despite its low budget and controversial subject matter, stems from its willingness to expose the unmistakable reality of what takes place in every abortion procedure.
The film depicts abortion unflinchingly — earning it an R rating — and predictably has been dismissed by mainstream sources as “propaganda” and “an unabashed hit-job.” But unfortunately for critics, the character Abby Johnson is based on a real person of the same name, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who now directs a pro-life organization.
There’s no question that the film demonizes Planned Parenthood and glorifies pro-lifers who pray on the sidewalk outside clinics. It’s unlikely that an abortion-rights supporter could sit through the entire movie, let alone come away convinced that abortion is immoral. But perhaps that isn’t the film’s goal. Perhaps merely depicting the grisly truth of abortion is enough.
The narrator promises at the outset that her story will be difficult to watch, that it doesn’t come wrapped up in a tidy bow, that it will probably “make you squirm a bit.” And it does. The initial 15 minutes feature Abby’s first experience holding ultrasound tools while a Planned Parenthood doctor performs a surgical abortion. We’re shown the torturous visuals of her own chemical abortion, which she suffers through at home alone in her bathroom. And we witness the bloody aftermath of a botched abortion performed on a teenage girl who didn’t want an abortion in the first place.
None of it is easy to watch. But none of it is a lie.
Lying about abortion is what its defenders do best. There is a legitimate debate about how to balance the competing rights at stake in abortion — the right to life of the unborn human being and his or her mother’s right to autonomy, even over the life inside her.
But that debate can flourish only when the terms are accurately defined, when both sides admit that every abortion takes an innocent human life. Instead of acknowledging that scientific reality, those who support abortion prefer to talk about women’s rights and women’s health care, and bodily autonomy, and reproductive freedom, and the right to choose.
But the right to choose what? That’s what Unplanned shows anyone with the courage to look.
“I saw it,” Abby says after witnessing an abortion on an ultrasound. “And it moved. And it was like it was twisting and fighting for its life. It was this tiny perfect little baby. And then it was just gone.” It was the moment she knew she had to leave Planned Parenthood. Seeing the truth changed everything.
The film takes great pains to reveal the sinister agenda of the Planned Parenthood officials, at times coming across as heavy-handed. But Unplanned is not, ultimately, about Planned Parenthood. It’s about abortion, and about how those who support it so often ignore or deny or obscure its reality.
“At this stage, between six and eight weeks, it’s just fetal matter, a lump of tissue, not much more than a polyp or a blood clot,” Abby tells a pregnant woman while she’s still working at Planned Parenthood. Before her own medical abortion, a nurse assures her the pill won’t do anything more than “gently empty out your uterus.” There are several references to “terminating pregnancies.”
But in the film’s most poignant moments, those euphemisms are punctured. Abby is instructed by her supervisor to join her in the “POC” room. “Do you know what that stands for?” a co-worker asks.
“Products of conception,” Abby replies, using the standard jargon.
Her co-worker smirks: “Pieces of children.”
In the POC room, clinicians carefully count every piece from every aborted fetus, to ensure each one has been safely removed from his or her mother — they have numbered all my bones. We watch as Abby lifts a miniature arm from a petri dish. It is, as promised, difficult to watch.
There was some debate before Unplanned’s release about whether it deserved its R rating, and it probably did. What does that say about the violence of abortion, that we must be warned to look away?
Those powerful visuals, though, aren’t the film’s most compelling moments. The most haunting shot in Unplanned isn’t the blood on the floor or the abortionist’s scalpel or even that tiny, perfectly formed fetal arm — it’s the ultrasound image of a woman’s empty womb when her abortion procedure is over.