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Wetwork: a Review of “Unplanned”

My anti-abortion views solidified in 1976 when I bought a copy of Esquire magazine. There was something in it by or about George Plimpton that I wanted to read, but thumbing through the pages I came to an article titled “What I Saw at the Abortion” by Richard Selzer, M.D.

I’d been a Catholic for about three years and knew what I was supposed to believe about abortion. I’d recently read Humane vitae for the first time and been deeply impressed by its clarity: “all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, [is] to be absolutely excluded.” But it was when I read Dr. Selzer’s article that my view was forever set.

What knocked me for a loop was Selzer’s reference to a “flick,” a resistance, the fetus defending itself against its murder. Read it for yourself (The Human Life Review has reprinted it here [1]), but here’s the good doctor’s conclusion:

I am not trying to argue. I am only saying I’ve seen. The flick. Whatever else may be said in abortion’s defense, the vision of that other defense will not vanish from my eyes. What I saw I saw as that: a defense, a motion from, an effort away. And it has happened that you cannot reason with me now. For what can language do against the truth of what I saw?

So, it seemed to me before I watched the new movie, Unplanned, that the defining scene would have to be just such a moment, one in which Abby Johnson (played by Ashley Bratcher) witnessed the abortion that changed her life. (The film is based on her book of the same title [2].)

That moment is set up nicely in an earlier scene in which Abby, the youngest clinic director at Planned Parenthood, banally counsels a young woman not to worry: “The one thing that all experts agree on is that, at this stage, the fetus can’t feel anything.”

But then she witnesses a “procedure” during which she sees (via ultrasound) the child “twisting and fighting for its life” against the abortionist’s cannula, which causes her to look anew at her participation in the 22,000 abortions that happened during her tenure. This begs the question of how one could ever not have known what the hell was going on, but that’s life, I guess. We must suppress what we believe we must not accept.

As the Psalmist says (34: 14-15), “Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” And that’s what Abby Johnson did, a change of heart and mind, however, made more difficult for her because she’d had two abortions herself.

The scenes in which Ashley Bratcher acts through Abby Johnson’s descent into abject misery and ascent into pro-life glory are very fine indeed.

Yet Unplanned is sometimes sluggish, partly because of flashbacks and narration, and occasionally it’s preachy. It also goes further than it probably should have in showing, specifically, a bloody abortion gone wrong, and, generally, the blood associated with a Planned Parenthood clinic.

It’s shocking to watch, and that’s clearly what directors Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon intended these scenes to be. But it’s also why their film received an MPAA rating of R and not PG-13. The implications of this at the box office could be grave, although I hope not. And some churches may decide not to screen it, especially to teenagers, and that would be a shame, especially since a drop of blood can be effective. And anyway the point is the potential crises in abortion: perforated uterus, falling blood pressure, and the pallor that comes from blood loss. You don’t have to dwell on the effusion of blood and fetal tissue.

It reminded me of Signal 30, the driver’s ed video we were shown in high school that depicted, in gruesome detail, the consequences of recklessness behind the wheel. It was repulsive without, I’m afraid, actually being an effective deterrent.

I’m sorry to dwell on this, but the ultrasound image in Unplanned of the vacuum aspiration of a fetus – graphic but not bloody – was sufficient; its impact far greater than the billows of crimson.

Still, abortion is what, in intelligence-military jargon, is called “wetwork,” a loan word from the Russian mokroye delo, meaning murder or assassination.

But I must say that Unplanned makes its arguments cogently. And arguments are still necessary, since the idea that the “products of conception” are not a human being still clearly rules in Federal law and dominates thinking and policy in one of America’s political parties, the party of Herod.

And this is another reason why the gore in Unplanned is unnecessary. Many medical procedures spill blood and some go sideways. Audiences are used to that, and I suppose if a pro-abortion advocate saw this movie, she might say, “The fact that sometimes things get messy isn’t an argument for restricting a woman’s reproductive rights. It’s her body!”

In the end, Unplanned, though far from a failure, is shallow. The motif in the film is the fence around the Texas Planned Parenthood facility where most of the action takes place. On one side are the abortionists, who are portrayed either complacent or evil; on the other side are the pro-life demonstrators from 40 Days for Life, are of whom all virtuous.

It’s not a propaganda film, although a final scene, in which the My Pillow founder, Mike Lindell, operates a bulldozer to knock down the Planned Parenthood sign at Abby’s former clinic, threatens to make what went before seem like an infomercial. I’m sure the producers were grateful for the million dollars Mr. Lindell put into the film. “I don’t get into things for the money,” Lindell told the Hollywood Reporter, “I get into them if the message is right.” Okay, Mike, but do you have to actually get into the movie itself?

Meanwhile, Ms. Bratcher gave a remarkable interview [3] on the Fox News Channel that you’ll want to watch before you see Unplanned. And, please, see it.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.