Tuesday, April 9, 2019

"Unplanned" -- Effective Pro-Life Work & Conversations [A Movie Review]

Issues so personal as pregnancy and loss aren't something to talk about lightly.

Add to that a national pro-life movement that's rife with internal strategy wars and inconsistent politicization, and I didn't have high hopes for "Unplanned."

But overall first impression? I liked it.

"Unplanned" tells the story of Abby Johnson's gradual transition from pro-choice to pro-life advocacy after many years as a clinical director at Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas.

From the beginning, this movie gives pro-life advocates the freedom to disagree with one another over approach.

Marilisa is a young volunteer with the Coalition For Life, an organization that prays quietly outside the fence surrounding Planned Parenthood. She agrees with Abby that the graphic signs and rudeness of other well-intentioned pro-lifers are completely ineffective. This scene reminded me of the times I've shared common ground with pro-choice advocates, agreeing with their dismay at the rhetoric or actions of those who claim pro-life values.

An interview with the real-life Marilisa Carney discusses how her pro-life advocacy has changed through different seasons of life. After many years of full-time ministry, Marilisa's current pro-life work is raising her kids, "cultivating a pro-life culture in our homes," as she says. I find encouragement in this idea that our pro-life advocacy could be as simple as living our lives where we are.

Each person in the movie who identifies as pro-life lives out that belief differently. Everyone doesn't work at the crisis pregnancy resource center. Everyone doesn't pray outside Planned Parenthood. Everyone doesn't intensively take on every conversational opportunity to push their pro-life beliefs on anyone who will listen.

Not once in this movie did a change of heart come from conflict, anger, or a dismissive witty jab. Which brings me to the next takeaway that I'd do well to take to heart…

"Unplanned" illustrates how conversion comes through quiet moments, supportive conversation, and established relationships of mutual respect.

I don't usually watch R-rated movies. I don't like graphic violence or gore, especially the out-of-context images that get stuck in my head. (I saw "The Passion of the Christ" because I used to support the idea that we can't fully appreciate Jesus' sacrifice unless we see it represented as close to its actual horror as possible. I no longer feel this way.)

"Unplanned" has a lot of blood: a particularly disturbing bathroom scene after Abby experiences a chemical abortion and a bloody clinic scene after a teenage girl hemorrhages from a perforated uterus during an abortion. Having given birth several times, and having seen the incredible bloody mess that it makes, I don't think the amount of blood involved was overstated.

In my completely amateur movie reviewer opinion, the MPAA rating is straight-up accurate.

"Unplanned" isn't strongly political. As a pro-life person who's advocated
that someone can vote -- in good conscience -- Republican or Democrat with the intent to decrease abortion in America, I appreciated that the movie itself steered clear of specific politics. I sporadically follow Abby Johnson on social media, and from what I've seen, she regularly offends people from both ends of the political spectrum in her attempts to be consistently pro-life. (Personally, I appreciate that.)

Unfortunately, the marketing company that promoted "Unplanned" on Twitter used the movie's account to "like" a POTUS tweet regarding an irrelevant political issue -- citizenship and the census.

This seems particularly out of touch with pro-life values since undocumented immigrants are more vulnerable to the desperate situations that lead to abortion. Birth Choice, a pro-life crisis pregnancy resource center in Oklahoma, shared that 70 percent of the women who come to them for help are Spanish-speaking, and many among them, undocumented. Regardless, Birth Choice helps every woman.

"Unplanned" went to such great lengths in its scripting and production to appeal to a bipartisan audience with the message that real pro-lifers care about helping both a woman and her child through whatever crisis they're facing. Given this, it seems counterintuitive at best and hypocritical at worst for the movie to take an intentional public political position on social media against immigrants who are currently in America illegally.

(I'm hopeful it was the dumb mistake of an errant marketing intern who forgot to log out of his company's account before scrolling through his own. If that's the case, it should have been publicly acknowledged and retracted, perhaps with an apology for distracting from actual pro-life conversation around the movie.)

I digress. Let's bring this home.

As a pro-life advocate, I've spent Saturdays praying on sidewalks outside Planned Parenthood clinics. I've brought my young children with me to vigils outside the fence.

While praying, I've watched clinic volunteers meet women at their cars to escort them safely inside. It seems ironic. So many volunteers, men and women, giving up their Saturdays -- rosaries on one side of the fence, yellow vests on the other -- each group believing the worst about those on the other side, each group wanting to protect vulnerable women from being manipulated by those on the other side.

For what it's worth, I've been on both sides of that fence.

When I was unexpectedly pregnant with my first beautiful son, I took a pregnancy test at a Planned Parenthood, and they helped me get healthcare coverage for prenatal care.

The front desk and billing people were impersonal and matter-of-fact, like any medical front office (including my pro-life Catholic ob-gyn and nearly every other doctor our family has ever used). But the nurses and counselors at Planned Parenthood were kind and patient (as are most nurses everywhere).

Granted, they charged me $25 for a simple urine pregnancy test that probably cost them a quarter. And once I turned down counseling for abortion or adoption, they couldn't really do anything else for me.

But that brief visit at Planned Parenthood is what made prenatal care accessible to me. (I'd already been turned down as a patient by several local ob-gyns and hospitals due to inability to pay.) Planned Parenthood provided the confirmation of pregnancy form that helped me qualify for Medicaid.

Throughout the movie, Planned Parenthood workers and volunteers are portrayed as compassionate to the difficult situations of the women who come through their doors and committed to a cause for better women's healthcare.

Planned Parenthood corporate, on the other hand -- as personified through Abby's ruthless regional director -- is depicted to a near caricature extreme of greed and immorality.

This bipolar tug-of-war between compassion and greed is intended to vilify Planned Parenthood, suggesting a true healthcare provider would never prioritize profits over patients. And yet, I found it an all too familiar summary of most healthcare in America.

Whether it's my children's orthodontist, pediatric neurosurgeon, ENT, anesthesiologists, or just primary care providers, I've experienced the same seemingly unethical medical practices ascribed to Planned Parenthood in this movie: encouraged to put unaffordable care on credit cards, urged to pursue aggressive, more expensive treatments than may be necessary, and treated like cattle in an over-scheduled day surgery clinic.

So it seems disingenuous to indict Planned Parenthood for operating from a profit-driven model of care when most medical providers in America -- providers who also file as "non-profits" -- treat patients exactly the same way.

If, however, we're to shut down Planned Parenthood explicitly for its abortion practices, that's a different and more honest conversation. Let's talk about that.

As someone who's personally benefited from the low-income women's healthcare provisions of Planned Parenthood, and as someone with friends who access STI testing and wellness services from the same clinic, I have to ask, when it comes to shutting down abortion providers, why Planned Parenthood? Why is Planned Parenthood targeted specifically for extensive regulation and political posturing around the issue of abortion?

I ask because there is a very profitable, large-scale abortion provider in the United States -- not Planned Parenthood -- that is almost completely self-regulated and enjoys unlimited bipartisan support. No one protests or prays outside their fences. And in fact, many leading "pro-life" politicians have offered their unwavering support. I'm talking about fertility clinics.

The process of in vitro fertilization [IVF] creates 15-20 embryos in each process, of which only 1-2 are implanted. The rest (~86% of created embryos) are disposed of as medical "waste," indefinitely frozen in storage, or donated to science. While the abortion rate in women’s clinics has declined steadily over the years, the CDC estimates, as of 2015, nearly 1 in 50 children are born through assisted reproductive technology. As of 2014, Texas had 28 clinics that offer abortion. Texas currently has 78 fertility clinics.

I don't bring up fertility clinics to deflect from the harmful reality of abortion at low-income women's health clinics, but simply to question our contemporary pro-lif
e priorities. Why is it that poor people getting abortions are vilified to the extent that society feels it's better to shut down basic health services in under-resourced areas -- services that reportedly are not being met by other low-income clinics once Planned Parenthood closes -- while the wealthy are free to dabble, create, and destroy unborn human life with impunity?

Again, and please, believe me, I am not trying to shut down pro-life advocacy here. I am trying to help us see our blind spots, hopefully in a way that can help us understand why some in the pro-choice movement might interpret our pro-life intentions as disingenuous and inconsistent.

I've heard there are inconsistencies to Abby's story -- whether her assistance in an ultrasound-guided abortion happened as described, whether her employee record was as stellar as she claims. To be honest, the contested details seem inconsequential to me.

I've gotten myself too entangled in a story before, mixing up a strict timeline of events for the heart of the story I'm trying to tell. I've left a job at the same time that the job was ready for me to leave.

I'm not ascribing any of these explanations to Abby's situation. But I don't think the discrepancy issues raised are large enough to undermine the reality of her testimony: a woman who dedicated her life to caring for women by providing abortion access had a change of heart and now runs a non-profit organization, And Then There Were None, that helps employees at abortion clinics transition to new jobs.

The greatest takeaway from "Unplanned" is its statement on the power of relationship. When we find ourselves on polar ends of an issue with family, friends, or activist strangers, a belief in the good intentions of the other goes far. I think this might be an effective place for quality pro-life / pro-choice dialogue to begin.

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