A movie about the true story of former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson, written, directed and co-produced by two Catholic filmmakers who are most known for scripting the “God’s Not Dead” films, opened at #5 at the box office this past weekend. While some have praised the production as being “heartrending entertainment” that will “shake the country to its core,” others have noted various concerns, from the behind-the-scenes spiritual ecumenism, to the movie’s gospel-less change, to its depiction of some abortion opponents as over-the-top “zealots.”
“We need to hear more of both sides in this day and age,” Executive Producer Steven Katz told the Quad City Times. “This shows there are zealots on both sides of the debate.”
“Unplanned” is distributed by Pure Flix Entertainment, a distributing company that identifies itself as “a Christian movie studio that produces, distributes, and acquires Christ-centered movies.” It states that its goal through releasing films under the umbrella of faith and family “is to influence the global culture for Christ through media.”
The movie is based on the true story of Abby Johnson, a now pro-life Roman Catholic who formerly worked as the director of the Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas, where thousands of college students attended Texas A&M University. Johnson began as a volunteer escort for women who were arriving for abortions, and later worked as a counselor until being offered to take over as director.
Johnson — who had two abortions during a previous relationship and marriage — says that she used to counsel women that babies cannot feel anything during the abortion procedure, and believes she had a part in an estimated 22,000 abortions. She states that she thought she was helping women, and that is why she became involved with the organization.
However, in 2009 she was called into the back room to personally assist with an ultrasound-guided abortion.
Holding the probe over the woman’s abdomen, she states that she could clearly see the 13-week-old child’s profile — head, arms, legs, fingers and toes — and then saw the baby trying to move away from the abortionist’s cannula, which soon sucked the child into a tube via the suction aspiration method, ending his or her life.
“As the cannula pressed in, the baby began struggling to turn and twist away,” Johnson writes in her book “Unplanned.” “It seemed clear to me that the fetus could feel the cannula and did not like the feeling.”
As the suction device was turned on, “[f]or the briefest moment, it looked as if the baby was being wrung like a dishcloth, twirled and squeezed. And then, the little body crumpled and began disappearing into the cannula before my eyes.”
“The last thing I saw was the tiny, perfectly formed backbone sucked into the tube, and then everything was gone.”
Johnson soon quit her job with Planned Parenthood, joined the efforts of a pro-life group, and began sharing her experience publicly.
THE SPIRITUAL MELTING POT BEHIND THE MOVIE
Catholic screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, most known for scripting the popular “God’s Not Dead” films and “Do You Believe,” state that Hollywood producer Megan Harrington gave them a copy of Johnson’s book and suggested that the men make the story into a movie.
The filmmakers, who agreed to move forward, along with others, wrote the script for the production and also served as directors and producers.
Solomon was asked about his Roman Catholic faith last month during an interview with The Catholic World Report.
“I asked the Lord what He wanted me to do. Do you want me to be a Jew? Do you want me to be a Buddhist? I’ll do whatever you want. He was all over me. He led me to the Catholic Church,” he said. “I’d walk into the religious section of a bookstore, and a book about the Catholic Church would fall at my feet. I studied the Catholic Church, its teachings, its history and the saints. I knew He was leading me there.”
Konzelman and Solomon told the Catholic News Agency last month that they made arrangements for a priest to exorcise the set and to “bless the cast and props.”
“We tried to do mass and adoration as much as we could,” Solomon outlined to the outlet. Other offerings were available for evangelicals.
The two also explained in a sneak peek video posted to the film’s YouTube channel that a prayer team for the effort was formed that was comprised of Catholics and evangelicals alike.
“Right from the outset, when we started planning this film, we knew we were going to need a prayer ministry,” Konzelman said. “We knew we were going to need protection. We knew there was going to be a lot of spiritual warfare surrounding the filming of this project.”
“The prayer ministry team that we put together was Catholics, evangelicals — all kinds from every denomination,” added Solomon, as photographs flip through, demonstrating the ecumenism of those involved — photos that include a nun and a priest.
Social media pages for the “Unplanned” Prayer Team feature various “decrees” over the film and society in general, including “Swift breakthrough in provision,” “Leaders hearts are returning toward life,” “The Church is waking up” and “Shame will be removed.” Quotes include those by Graham Cooke, known for his teachings on prophecy; Jennifer LeClaire, former head of Charisma Magazine; and husband and wife duo Nate and Christy Johnson, who are members of the Australian Prophetic Council.
Posts shared to social media also include a nun’s review of the film, as well as one by a Catholic priest, in addition to a mix of Catholic and evangelical endorsements.
The film’s cast features both evangelicals and Catholics, such as Lila Rose of Live Action, a Catholic; Mike Lindell of My Pillow, an evangelical who donated $1 million to the film effort; and Kris Vallotton of the controversial Bethel Church in California. Contemporary Christian artist Matthew West wrote and recorded the soundtrack for the film.
Mike Gendron of Proclaiming the Gospel Ministries in Plano, Texas, told Christian News Network that while he applauds Johnson for leaving Planned Parenthood and speaking out against the organization, he is concerned about the ecumenism with the project.
“I’m concerned the evangelicals are once again joining hands with Roman Catholics on a social issue, albeit a very important one,” he stated, adding that the Bible says in Galatians 1:6-9 that those who preach another gospel are to be an anathema.
GOSPEL-LITE OR GOSPEL-LESS?
Gabe Hughes, pastor of of First Southern Baptist Church in Junction City, Kansas, watched the film, and while he said he liked the production as a story, he also had a number of concerns.
“This is a pro-life film more than it is a Christian film, and those two things are not synonymous. … [N]ot all who call themselves pro-life are Christians,” he wrote in a blog post on the production. “While the movie might win some people to the pro-life side of the political aisle, no one will leave the theater a Christian because no one will have heard the gospel.”
Hughes noted that in one scene, Johnson, played by actress Ashley Bratcher, asks her husband how she will get over the guilt of what she has done. He replies, “You say you’re sorry and God will forgive you. … Because He’s God.” Hughes said that there is much more to the message of the gospel than the individual expressing regret, and the audience needs to hear it.
“We are forgiven when we know that we have sinned against a holy God and what we deserve is death, but God sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins and conquer death by rising again from the grave. All who believe in Him will not perish but will have His eternal life,” he wrote.
“If we ask forgiveness for our sins, God cleanses us from all unrighteousness because Jesus died in our place — not ‘because He’s God,’ but because He is ‘just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26). He forgives because Christ has paid,” Hughes continued. “We receive the immeasurable riches of His grace by faith in Christ alone and no other way. That’s the gospel. When you hear that message and you believe it, you will turn from your sin and become a follower of Jesus.”
Hughes said that this important component was absent from the film, and stated that he was also concerned that Johnson’s “conversion in the story was from pro-abortion to pro-life, not from sinner to saint,” and that it also portrayed her and her husband as “always church-going Christians.”
“Abby was not an unbeliever who became a believer in this film. She never had a come-to-Jesus moment … ,” he stated.
According to Konzelman and Solomon, Johnson did indeed attend services throughout the time that she was employed at Planned Parenthood.
“Abby and Doug were regular churchgoers … and there were a number of times where the sermon and what she was doing for a living were in conflict,” they told The American Catholic.
Johnson is reportedly a former Baptist and Episcopalian, and her parents are Southern Baptist. She joined the Roman Catholic Church around 2011. In one Facebook comment online, Johnson stated during a discussion, “Every time I profess that Jesus is lord and savior of my life by consuming His body and blood, I am saved. Luckily, I can receive that salvation every day of the week.”
DEPICTION OF ‘ZEALOTS’ VERSUS PRAYERS, CANDLELIGHT VIGILS
Hughes outlined that he was additionally concerned that “Unplanned” depicts a segment of those who stand against abortion outside of Planned Parenthood as a group of unruly, wild protesters “carrying Bibles, hurling insults, and making death threats.”
“But these are the only ones in the whole film to call abortion murder. The movie shows it’s murder, but it won’t say it’s murder,” he wrote.
The trailer for the film shows a group holding signs such as “abortion is murder” or images of aborted babies as Johnson pulls in the parking lot to the abortion facility. One man is dressed as the grim reaper, and another, holding a Bible, is later depicted calling out to Johnson that she is a “baby killer.”
Executive Producer Steven Katz told the Quad City Times that he believes the movie shows “there are zealots on both sides of the debate.”
Johnson herself has stated that she does not agree with using the images of aborted children outside of abortion facilities, and does not like to use the word “murder” for abortion, because it is a legal term and abortion is currently legal, but rather “killing.”
She additionally cautioned during one speech posted online that women who have obtained an abortion should not be referred to as “murderers” or someone who should have “kept their legs closed,” both of which are reportedly exemplified in the film.
“The pro-choice movement is watching you. The women who’ve had abortions, they’re watching you. When you call them murderers, they’re watching. You’re impeding their ability to heal,” Johnson said. “When women who are considering abortion are told that they should have kept their legs closed, of if they didn’t make such poor decisions they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place, they’re watching you. Your words can be life or death for their child.”
“And my particular interest: Abortion clinic workers past and present, they’re watching. When you call them baby killers, when you say that they should burn in Hell, they see that,” she stated.
In her book “Unplanned,” Johnson also opined, “We [both sides] all long for a story that shows ‘our’ side is right and good and ‘their’ side is wrong and bad, don’t we? But I testify that there is good and right and wrong on both sides of the fence. And even more shocking — we have far more in common with the other side than we might imagine.”
Hughes, in noting that the film itself depicts a bloody abortion pill abortion, as well as Johnson (Bratcher) picking through baby parts in a petri dish, remarked, “She’s opposed to using graphic imagery like pictures of aborted babies — unless that graphic imagery is in her movie, I guess.”
Portrayed contrastingly in a positive light, however, is the work of 40 Days for Life, a largely Roman Catholic effort that holds prayer vigils outside of abortion facilities. Participants pray quietly or silently, and sometimes events include candlelight vigils or rosary prayers.
Shawn Carney, who is depicted in the film and is a co-founder of the organization, is a Roman Catholic, and is a graduate of Bishop Thomas K. Gorman Catholic High School in Tyler.
A page on the 40 Days for Life website outlines for an upcoming event in Boston, “Come join us as we pray the Holy Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet on the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood” and “Come give witness to life as we pray the Stations of the Cross during Lent. We will be led by a different priest each week.”
A document posted online for a New York chapter of the organization instructs participants to “remain silent” and not to “engage in debate or confrontation with the public,” and that “we do not condemn or place judgment.” Signs are to be those from the organization, or featuring a pregnancy center hotline, or of a “positive nature.”
Gendron, who himself has ministered outside of abortion facilities and is a former Roman Catholic of 30 years, agreed that Roman Catholics take a different approach to addressing the abortion facility in their community.
“It’s quite a contrast between Roman Catholics who stand out front with a statue or a picture of the virgin Mary and they stand there praying repetitious prayers to Mary as they pray the rosary,” he said. “Of course, Mary can’t hear any prayers, and the Bible tells us not to pray other than the almighty God through the one mediatorship of Jesus Christ.”
He explained that it is vital to share the word of God with the women, for as Scripture states in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
“From personal experience, … I engage people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, recognizing that the women are about the commit a most serious sin of murder — murdering their baby in the womb — and it is only the power of God’s word will bring conviction that what they are about to do is a serious sin,” he outlined.
“We know that faith comes from hearing and hearing the word of Christ, so as we share the gospel with these women who are in crisis pregnancy, we know that the word of God can penetrate through the most stubborn heart when the spirit of God applies the word to their heart,” Gendron added.
“I’ve actually seen the women turn away from aborting their baby as we’ve shared the gospel, and so it’s very encouraging to see the power of God’s word at work.”