After eight years working for an abortion facility near Texas A&M University, Abby Johnson, the subject of dramatic biopic “Unplanned,” which released this week on home media, walked away from her job in 2009 following an epiphany about the nature of her work. Days later, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the regional affiliate of the nation’s largest abortion provider, hit its “2008 Employee of the Year” with a gag order and lawsuit.
“When I walked away, not only did I find myself in a courtroom against my former best friends, but I was kicked out of my faith community,” said Johnson in a phone interview. “I was told by the local Episcopal church I was no longer welcome. All of my friends had nothing to do with me anymore. Phone numbers were changed, and I was blocked on social media.”
This followed Johnson being spurned years before by a local Baptist church, after congregants saw her as a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman on local TV. Faith communities on both sides of the abortion divide had pushed her away. She felt spiritually homeless.
Likewise, “Unplanned,” depicting Johnson’s early career and dramatic exit from her job as clinic director, does not easily fit film genre categories. It’s rated R for depicting abortion procedures. It presents scenes of old white men holding bloody signs, protesting outside the central Texas clinic. It features music throughout from controversial evangelical-charismatic Bethel Church in Redding, California, an oddity considering Johnson has been Roman Catholic for nearly a decade.
Analysts called its first weekend a “miracle” when “Unplanned” opened this spring. Upon earning $19 million total, the biopic underperformed compared to the directors’ breakout hit “God’s Not Dead” ($64 million) and producers’ recent release “I Can Only Imagine” ($85 million). While its home media release has started strong, clearly the topic has kept some audiences away.
“A good part of the church did not show up,” said Cary Solomon, co-director of “Unplanned,” in a phone interview. “Especially on the evangelical side, they’re scared of it. They don’t talk about it. They don’t want to lose their congregation over it. The Catholics stood up more, but even there we didn’t get a lot of support.”
Johnson’s experiences, and the frenzy a low-budget film generated this year, confirm that abortion may be the most contentious issue in American society. Last fall, Gallup reported Americans evenly split — 48 to 48 — on self-identifying as “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
Cable Networks and Christian Radio Shun the Film
Considering popular reticence to discuss life issues, roadblocks to promoting the film appeared at every turn. On April 10, movie co-director Chuck Konzelman testified in a Senate hearing entitled “Stifling Free Speech,” presenting evidence of how Twitter and other tech and media companies practiced “one-sided discrimination” against their film. This included how cable networks Lifetime, UP TV, Hallmark, and HGTV refused their advertising dollars.
Equally concerning to producers was reception from Christian media. In March, the Educational Media Foundation (EMF), which owns the wide-reaching K-LOVE radio network, turned down the film team’s advertising efforts. Film producer Daryl Lefever understood the trepidation of approaching the abortion subject but said, “I do know a lot of the employees of K-LOVE were always for the film and wanting to see it succeed.”
On July 18, longtime faith-film producer Bill Reeves was named new CEO of EMF, and this past week, many K-LOVE stations began DVD giveaway promotions for “Unplanned.”
Personal Journey of Faith
Following her passage out of what she calls the “abortion industry” helps explain how Johnson, raised in a Baptist home, became one of the nation’s most prominent Catholic women.
“The only people who loved me just like I was were these people who I had believed to be intolerant,” said Johnson, who was involved in more than 22,000 abortion procedures. “Two of the people instrumental in my story were sidewalk counselors when I worked in the clinic. They were investing in prayer for me every single day.”
Both women were longtime Catholic believers. Johnson and her husband Doug, today parents of eight children including one adopted, converted to Catholicism in April 2012. How her own parents, who remain committed Baptist believers, have responded to her journey serves as a microcosm of the larger conversation.
“I was a little nervous about how they would handle it,” said Johnson. “They said that they see Jesus so clearly in our lives and our family. We worship differently than they do, and even how I was brought up. They can’t really argue with how we strive to have a close relationship with Christ, and that relationship is bearing fruit.”
With Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit against her thrown out of court, Johnson has been a leader in the pro-life movement for now nearly a decade, and she crosses surprising lines in speaking engagements. On April 13, she addressed one of the nation’s largest evangelical churches when Pastor Jentezen Franklin invited her to speak at Free Chapel in Gainesville, Georgia. Ten days later, she followed a representative from the Vatican when she gave a fiery speech to clergy and lay leaders at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
Bridging ‘Manmade Problems’
“Unplanned” echoes Johnson’s ecumenical approach. The film’s core creative team reflect diverse Christian backgrounds. Co-directors Solomon and Konzelman are devout Catholics, while lead producers Daryl Lefever and Chris Jones hail from charismatic-evangelical faith communities.
“We love Jesus as Catholics. Daryl and Chris love Jesus as evangelicals,” said Solomon. “That’s the bridge right there, because Jesus is bigger than manmade problems.”
Lefever worked at major film studios for nearly 20 years, serving as financial controller on “The Polar Express” (Warner Bros.) and “X-Men” (20th Century Fox). Eight years ago, he became an independent producer of faith-based films; his biggest hit came in spring 2018, when music biopic “I Can Only Imagine” earned $85 million at the box office.
“In Hollywood, so many people — including us, at one point — erect a barrier between what they do for a living and how they practice their faith in the rest of their lives,” said Konzelman. “They kind of have to. Daryl [Lefever] had made a decision not to do that balancing act, and just go over to the faith and values side.”
They found common ground in bringing to life this story of personal conversion and public confession. The writer and directors chose early to closely follow Johnson’s “Unplanned” memoir. It illuminates why her current Catholic faith has no presence in the film.
“I wrote the book really quickly after I had left the clinic,” said Johnson. “At the time that I was writing it, the Catholicism part of my story had not even taken place.”
‘R Stands for Recommended’
Using the book’s structure led to its most controversial choice: the depiction of two abortion scenes. In one, a computer-generated fetus reacts on an ultrasound screen as an abortion provider mimics the action of suctioning it. In another, Johnson (portrayed by actress Ashley Bratcher) deals with the aftermath of her own medication abortion; a significant amount of blood is shown.
The Motion Picture Association of America cited these scenes in giving the film an R rating. Filmmakers balked, although also hoped that could play to their advantage.
“It was a political R,” said Solomon. “Someone told me, ‘Oh, I can’t see it because there’s too much blood.’ I said, ‘OK, during this two-hour movie, close your eyes for 30 seconds. You’re a grown-up.’ The bottom line is, we go back to reality and back to truth. People are drawn to controversy, so this may actually cause more to see it, particularly young people.”
A coalition of conservative Christian figures wrote an open letter to the MPAA in protest of the rating decision. They included pro-life activist Alveda King, singer Pat Boone, and “Schindler’s List” producer Gerald Molen. In a separate endorsement, evangelist Franklin Graham said, “In this case, R stands for recommended.”
Viewers who have experienced pregnancy loss through stillbirth or miscarriage, or who are post-abortive, have noted those scenes as jarring. “I get it, that it might be traumatizing to some people,” said Solomon. “We prayed on it a long time, whether we were going to show it or not. We felt strongly the Lord said, You have to show it. If you do not, this will go on.”
Same God, Different Liturgy
For Johnson, it felt surreal seeing scenes from her life recreated during the 31-day film shoot in Stillwater, Oklahoma, last summer. Johnson recalls interacting often on-set with a five-person prayer team, who she says “never stopped praying, hour after hour.”
“There’s a picture of the medication abortion scene, a very emotional and draining scene, especially for Ashley,” said Johnson. “On the other side of that bathroom wall set, there was the prayer team. They all had their hands on the wall, praying during that scene.”
Every morning, the cast and crew gathered for a short devotional time led by a member of the prayer team or a guest minister. For the Roman Catholics, their voluntary call time started nearly a half-hour earlier, for Mass, adoration, and confession.
The film’s soundtrack suggests the range of Christian influences the directors sought out. In addition to tracks from gospel singer Mandisa and pop artist Francesca Battistelli, five songs originate from Bethel Music, an independent label of the charismatic megachurch in Redding.
“We wanted to put secular music in as well, but they said good luck with that!” said Solomon, referencing their struggles with music licensing.
Tying It All Together
Amid the challenges the team faced promoting their controversial film, finding unexpected allies lifted their spirits. Such was the case when Christian recording artist Matthew West reached out to a member of the “Unplanned” team.
“Matthew actually called and asked us … if he could write the title song for the film,” said Lefever. “Of course, we said yes right away. He still sings that song at all of his concerts, even though it’s not necessarily one that has gotten a lot of airplay.”
Johnson and the filmmakers are quick to pivot questions about impact to And Then There Were None, which Johnson founded in 2012 as a ministry to former abortion industry workers. With a staff of 14, the nonprofit group has now assisted 525 women and men who worked at abortion facilities in finding other employment.
For all its raw, difficult scenes inside an abortion facility, “Unplanned” ties up its story threads in a tidy finale after two hours. In a juxtaposition of religious fervor and social activism, hundreds cheer as a crane operator topples the Planned Parenthood sign outside the facility. Then Johnson (portrayed by Bratcher) leads prayer as women and men tie roses to the clinic’s cast iron fence, each representing their progeny lost to abortions.
The entire small town, it seemed, had come together. Yet real life was more complex — and continues to be. Navigating public policies on life issues and rifts within Christianity, today the mother of eight appeals for unity despite doctrinal differences.
“We’re never, ever, ever all going to believe the exact same, and that’s okay,” said Johnson. “There will always be different forms of worship and different nuances. As long as our core beliefs — that we believe in a Trinitarian God, and we believe that Christ died on the cross and rose for us for the forgiveness of our sins — are intact, then we are Christian.”
She concluded: “We need to do what we can to work together, even if we all go to different churches.” For this film, that’s exactly what the crew did.