John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
I saw “Unplanned” recently. Even now, more than a month since its release, it’s still running in some theaters nationwide. If you haven’t seen it, go. If you have seen it, go again — if only to resist the media blackout of this film.
My reflections on the film are not planned, offered at random, and in no particular ranking order.
Abby Johnson, the erstwhile Planned Parenthood-clinic-director-turned- pro-life-advocate, is finally converted when she steps in to assist a “procedure” and watches, via the ultrasound she is conducting, as the abortionist aims his suction tube at the child, who appears instinctively to draw back before being vacuumed out of the security of his mother’s womb (to the abortionist’s tasteless “joke,” “beam me up, Scottie,” as he turns on the apparatus).
When Dr. Bernard Nathanson, another abortionist-turned-pro-life-convert, narrated the documentary “The Silent Scream” back in 1984, he hoped that the window into the womb opened by ultrasound would help establish the biological truth that life begins at conception. The same logic has underlain the policy of those states that require ultrasounds prior to abortions (and which, as Abby Johnson notes in her film, many clinics try to discount by averting the screen).
I’ve been around the pro-life movement since I was 12, on a January afternoon in 1973 when I heard on NBC news that Roe had been handed down. I remember two sets of pictures from back then.
Back in 1965, Lennart Nilsson’s photo essay, “Life Before Birth,” appeared in Life magazine. In its day, those colored pictures of fetal development were cutting edge, giving a glimpse into everyone’s origins that are fearfully yet wonderfully… hidden. We should not forget how much of human reproduction — most of which occurs internally en ventre sa mere (as the French legal phrase used to put it so nicely)—has long been concealed from human observation. (You can’t really see what happens internally to the human body in a pre-anesthetic age, and anesthesia is a 19th-century development.) No wonder, as medical science was coming to a greater grasp of fetal development, legislation protective of the unborn was being enacted.
Closer to Roe, pictures of the “products” of abortion — sliced, diced, mangled, pickled and bloody babies — were staples in pro-life protests. I remember seeing those plates the first time I got hands on Dr. Jack Willke’s magisterial Handbook on Abortion.
Over the course of time, presumably to be neither “distressing” nor “alienating,” those photos have largely disappeared. I’m not sure if that has been a good thing. In “Unplanned,” Cheryl — the first clinic director — declares that Abby is ready to “move up” and take over as clinic director when she’s taken into the “P.O.C.” lab (standing for “Products of Conception” but satirically called by staff the “Pieces of Children” room). At day’s end, staff have to reassemble fetal parts to ensure that nothing was left behind to induce sepsis, infection, shock or maternal death. Cheryl says Abby’s the one because most people’s initial contact with detached fetal arms, legs, and torsos leads to them fleeing in tears, but Abby picks up a detached arm and examines it clinically. (Presumably, Cheryl would have known Abby would be ready for further promotion if she could discuss prices for those body parts over a quality Cabernet.)
If one’s readiness to advance in the Planned Parenthood world is suggested by one’s ability to interact with fetal remains with clinical indifference, then perhaps right to life’s hiding the pictures that show the truth of abortion is fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. In any event, Nilsson’s dramatic photo essay (without pictures of what abortion does to those unborn children) deserves renewed attention.
“Unplanned” shows how much lying — by commission or omission — is the abortionist’s stock-in-trade. From “escorts” whose job it is to ensure “clients” don’t hear a pro-life message from clinic protestors, to practitioners who assure early-term pregnancies can be easily ended by do-it-yourself-pills (RU-486) that will “only” induce “bleeding” akin to a “heavy period,” to abortionists who won’t call for an ambulance because having a patient taken away with flashing lights is worse than her having a perforated uterus, the film shows how much abortionists lie and how much Abby Johnson compromised with her own convictions and experience to toe the line.
It’s interesting that when Johnson, just given a national award for her “model” clinic, challenges PP to live up to its propaganda about being an “all-round, comprehensive women’s health services clinic,” she is reamed by her erstwhile boss. Fast food restaurants, Cheryl reminds us, only break even on hamburgers; their profits are fries and soda.
Abortion is PP’s fries and soda.
While the restaurant analogy may demonstrate the coarse indifference of the abortion industry, I’ll actually admit I appreciated it. Planned Parenthood loves telling people that abortion represents only “3%” of its services, based on a totaling model that counts procedures individually and discretely. If a woman has an ultrasound-guided abortion, pregnancy test, OB-GYN exam, and abortion, the abortion is only one-fourth of her “care.” I’ve argued that such accounting legerdemain would be like a steakhouse saying you can get wine, bread, salad, potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, sangria, flan, cake, and steak, so “steak” is only 10% of its client services (which can arguably even be characterized as primarily “vegetarian”).
It’s not coincidental — and highly salient to public discussion — that, as Cheryl reminds Abby when the latter insists PP is a “nonprofit,” that “nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model.”
Pro-lifers watching this film might be amazed at how much Abby lies to herself, admitting even from the initial voice-over that some might think she was naïve or credulous. She was. But “Unplanned” also shows how much human beings can evade the truth staring them in the eyes — until they can’t. Abby is like the subject of Francis Thompson’s great poem, “The Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped...
Until, finally, we allow Him to catch us, until we are finally converted.
“Unplanned” underscores the importance of human solidarity. At Georgetown’s Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life last January, George Weigel pointed out that the primary factor that determined whether a woman went forward with or relented on her plans of abortion was whether she believed she had any support from anybody else. Real support, to stay with her through thick and thin, not a therapeutic voice to “close the deal” on an abortion today (as Abby demonstrates, with the skill of a timeshare marketer).
“Unplanned” finally gives pro-life pregnancy support people and abortion protestors a fair image, revealing their readiness to help whomever needs their help — even a clinic director who wants to get out of (as Charley Pride might have put it) “the burgers and fries and cherry pies” business.
That corrective image is crucial, because pro-life pregnancy centers have been lambasted by abortionists for cutting into their profit margins and taking away “clients.” California even went so far as to trample the First Amendment in its attempt to make pro-life pregnancy support centers do abortion advocacy, a violation roundly slapped down by the Supreme Court last June in NIFLA v. Becerra. In “Unplanned,” Abby comments there is a greater incidence of abandoning “appointments” when women who see people praying around an abortion clinic. While society’s first duty is to protect its members basic rights, which is a legal duty, we should not forget that building a pro-life society will not be accomplished only by changing laws (however critical that is) unless accompanied by changing minds — and that means pro-life engagement with real human beings, one woman at a time.
“Unplanned” is a powerful film that refocuses attention on the barbarism that occurs approximately every 30 seconds in the United States. See it!
All views herein are exclusively the author’s own.