Guest post by Fr. Jeffrey Stephaniuk
Unplanned is a movie based on the book of the same title by Abby Johnson with Cindy Lambert. Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman are the screenwriters and directors of the film. They write that it is about abortion and “it’s about the aftermath.” The title is a play on words, in opposition to the Christian concept of responsible parenthood, of Planned Parenthood, the organization through which Abby “rose through the ranks to become a clinic director” in a clinic in Texas.
The title also works as a witness to providence, that unseen hand of guidance by a merciful force outside of oneself. In this regard the book and movie are a conversion story, the joy of conversion to the pro-life worldview. One does not take the good with the bad, but rather, the good comes from the bad, life from death. It is like a prayer from Easter Sunday in which the acknowledgement is made that joy has come to us through the cross, even if the very idea of conversion has become in some quarters of pop culture a politically loaded word that evokes desperate reactions of denial, revulsion, and suppression.
This theme of God’s providence is continued in Planned from the Start: A Healing Devotional by Lorraine Marie Varela, written “to accompany the major theatrical release Unplanned.” See Inspiring Faith The movie is “about the pain of women living with hidden guilt and shame, and their struggle to find healing from their pain,” write Solomon and Konzelman in Planned from the Start. Lorraine and Gabriel Varela were invited by the writers and producers “to establish and over-see our on-set ministry team,” and with their book, they address the immobilizing fear that one might remain unforgiven of an “unpardonable” sin.
During a recent webinar about the upcoming screening of Unplanned in Canadian theatres, the participants, including the writers and directors, and Abby Johnson herself, were asked whether the events in the movie were true. They explained the nature of the book upon which the movie was based, and their faithfulness to it in writing the screenplay. Doctors who have seen the movie have also confirmed its accuracy. See: Doctors Review Unplanned
The question reminds me of the problem that Dr. Bernard Nathanson faced in the 1980s over the release of his film documentary of an abortion, The Silent Scream. It is similarly based on the impact of imagery provided by an ultrasound machine. (NY TImes Review) The difference between it and Unplanned is that an actual abortion is executed in The Silent Scream, while “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” could have been included as a disclaimer in the credits of Unplanned. The actor who plays an abortionist is in real life another convert who disavowed abortion, Dr. Anthony Levatino, who knows intimately what really happens during an abortion.
Dr. Nathanson was accused of what can be called the literary device of personification, attributing human qualities to what is for all intents and purposes not conceded to be a human being. His critics insisted that various thresholds of credibility were not met, such as the ability to feel pain or certain levels of brain development. The non-medical component of the criticism was being offended that someone had the audacity “to deny women the abortions he feels they shouldn’t have,” the same polluted water well for opposition to Unplanned in 2019 as to The silent Scream in 1985. The truth is that ultrasounds change hearts and minds, as the Knights of Columbus have learned, which has led them to invest in ultrasound machines for abortion-minded mothers, with over 1000 placed in centres in the United States, and their first one recently in Canada. See Knights of Columbus News Resources
In 1983, during the Trial for Life, brought to the Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan by Joe Borowski as Plaintiff and the Attorney General of Canada and the Minister of Finance of Canada as the Defendants, Dr. Patrick Beirne was accepted by the court as an expert in the field of Obstetrics and Gynecology and with special knowledge and experience in ultrasound. Dr. Beirne confirmed the evidence about “the baby as not being part of the mother” as stated by previous court-accepted experts, adding that “it’s a uniquely different individual” and that “their genetic makeup is different.” When asked for clarification by the court, by Justice W.R. Matheson, if ever “termination was necessary to prevent the death of the mother?” the reply was unequivocal: “No need for abortions…” And when the lawyer for the defence asked whether “the mother’s mental health would be endangered as a result of a pregnancy,” Beirne again stated clearly that “there is no psychiatric condition that I know of which is cured by abortion.”
At one point in The Silent Scream, Dr. Nathanson has the film slowed down in order to make a point and then the film returns to its regular speed. He was accused of manipulating the reality of what was happening, making me think that perhaps his critics would next claim that he was employing the technics of the KGB in forging documents. Interestingly, though, the reliability of the ultrasound itself in showing images of what is other than the mother is never questioned or dismissed. Nathanson addressed these concerns, but in later years acknowledged that the damage had been done, saddened that advances in modern technology and even the experience of pain by the human being in the pre-born time of one’s development was disparaged and ridiculed.
In her book, Abby Johnson writes about the ultrasound that changed her life, writing that “I could not have imagined how the next ten minutes would shake the foundation of my values and change the course of my life.” Her help was needed to assist the visiting abortionist who “did only ultrasound-guided abortions- the abortion procedure with the least risk of complications for the woman.” The pre-occupation with the tangible needs and rights of the mother then collide with the objective reality of the existence and humanity of the child in one’s pre-natal time of development.
“Of course, I thought. The fetus doesn’t feel pain. I had reassured countless women of this as I’d been taught by Planned Parenthood. The fetal tissue feels nothing as it is removed. Get a grip, Abby. This is a simple, quick medical procedure. My head was working hard to control my responses, but I couldn’t shake an inner disquiet that was quickly mounting to horror as I watched the screen… What was in this woman’s womb just a moment ago was alive. It wasn’t just tissue, just cells. That was a human baby – fighting for life! A battle that was lost in the blink of an eye. What I have told people for years, what I’ve believed and taught and defended, is a lie.”
Then Abby Johnson has a moment in her life resembling what St. Peter experienced. He denied Christ three times, then “wept bitterly” in repentance. She denied the humanity of the pre-born before “I stumbled, weeping, through the back door of our Coalition for Life office that fifth day in October 2009.”
During the Trial for Life, Dr. Patrick Beirne describes the similarity between ultrasounds and movies: “… if you scan very rapidly you can build up a composite picture just like the movie film is a sequence of still pictures shown so quickly that there’s no flicker evident to the human eye.” The life-changing ultrasound depicted in Unplanned, the technology described Beirne described as “demonstrating in a visual rather than a tactile sensation, that the baby is in fact moving,” could be said to have a Shakespearian effect on Johnson, of the play within the play in Hamlet, where “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Unplanned is a movie about a movie, the ultrasound, that brings humanity to her sight and awakens her conscience. The temptation for viewers and opponents is whether they will be like Judas, consumed by the nihilism that leads to tragedy, embracing the death that defending and demanding abortion represents, or whether they will be like Peter, and Abby Johnson, who “wept bitterly” and returns to freedom and to life.
Fr Jeffrey D. Stephaniuk is a Ukrainian Catholic priest in the Eparchy of Saskatoon, and is a priest on the team of Rachel’s Vineyard Saskatchewan, a retreat for psychological and spiritual healing after abortion.