“Where are the fathers?” I kept wondering, as the movie progressed.
“Their ‘loser boyfriends’ sometimes ditched them at the clinic while they were having their procedure,” the main character of the movie, Abby Johnson, said.
The movie I am here reviewing is Unplanned, a feature-length film that dramatizes the turn-around of Abby Johnson from director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas to an anti-abortion activist, and founder/director of And Then There Were None, an agency that helps medical staff and counselors transition out of abortion work.
I am no glutton for raw, controversial and complicated topics. And this is a raw, controversial and complicated film. It is unsparing in its portrayal of blood, suffering, regret and ultra-sound images. It is not a way that I would recommend approaching the matter of abortion with children or youth. But since I was approached by a partner agency of our church to share information about the coming film with our church’s members, I and others with “a spoon in this soup” agreed to at least do that: pass on information, if not a recommendation.
That alone elicited some expression of concern. I am glad for the communications I have had with others around that decision. I find the idea of abortion repellent, and not just for reasons that are uniquely religious. I often read that, on this and other matters, I should not impose my religious beliefs and values on others, especially not on the wider, secular society. I agree, especially when those beliefs and values don’t necessarily clip my own wings, but apply more stringently to other people, namely, the 51 % of humanity who are women.
My reservations about abortion, however, are not about imposing my values upon women to better control them and ensure the ongoing reproduction of my race and religion, as some assert. I only need look at history to see what happens when any class of people are considered anything less than fully human and worthy of our love. Once we get started down that path, never have we resisted expanding that category from one less powerful group to more, nor from doing increasingly subhuman things to them. Over my lifetime, the exploration and advocacy of euthanasia, infanticide, and ethnic cleansing have only grown in intensity, sophistication and acceptance. Women express concerns about these trends, as much as do men.
But I also have strong concerns about making abortion illegal, or having non-medical professionals legislate its practice. Any advocacy on this matter, pro- or- con, that does not address the dilemmas, nor the inequalities of cost, is not worth our time. To be fair, Unplanned makes some valiant efforts at acknowledging the complexities and the ambivalence of the issues, the persons and the problems involved. Other times, though, I cringed at the stock-in-trade caricatures, good and evil, of some roles in the film, such as the first clinic director, and of Planned Parenthood itself. But even if some of the events and interactions were only half as crude and cruel in real life as what the movie depicted (movies do tend to condense and amplify things), they bear reflecting upon.
One concern expressed to me had to do with the apparent hypocrisy of so much political activism against abortion. That includes cases in which politicians who campaigned on “family values” and “the right to life” were later found to have pushed their mistresses to abort the babies they had fathered. I expect to hear more of such revelations. I’ve also been asked about why right-to-lifers don’t show as much support for children after they were born as before they were born. A fair critique in some cases, but not for the people I know personally who are involved in agencies like The Canby Pregnancy Center. They recognize that all mothers, families and people need support, from conception to resurrection, especially those without fathers in the picture.
Another legitimate critique of so much right to life activism is that it places so much responsibility, guilt and pressure only upon women, with little to nothing upon the shoulders of men, unless they are the abortion providers. And yet no women ever face the issue without the involvement of men. Unplanned does touch occasionally, and lightly, on the difference of the burden of abortion on men and women. Observation tells me that men are more likely to pressure women into sex before marriage than vice versa, and that today’s “hook-up” culture and “promiscuity culture” favor men’s power and freedom, while leaving women with the burdens as well as the emotional and physical aftermath, including STD’s and pregnancy. Such men, in Unplanned, join the list of villains as, “Loser boyfriends,” along with corporate higher-ups and the most vile and judgmental anti-abortion protesters, also depicted and decried in Unplanned.
Then there is the selectivity of the issue. Why are we not equally worked up about the possible termination of the whole human race, even of the living planet, through nuclear weapons or environmental degradation? If it’s wrong to abort a child in utero, why then is it okay 18 years later to kill him or her in uniform? That’s an inconsistency by omission that often bothers me in discussions about abortion.
That’s where an Anabaptist Mennonite peace ethic contributes something to the discussion: a consistent reverence for life, based on reverence for the Life-giver, as well as for life. In this ethic, the question changes from, “Is this fetus really yet a truly human life that I am required to let live, or even help?” or “When does this fetus become a truly human person I am required to let live?” to “Who am I to decide if this fetus is a truly human life or not?” Applying the turn of logic that Jesus did to the lawyer who asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10: 25-37), we would ask, instead, “Who is the neighbor to…….this fetus, or to this terminally ill man of advanced age, this woman with advanced dementia, this physically and cognitively challenged person, etc.?”
The answer: I am.
And how can I be the neighbor to even “the least of these?” Like the Good Samaritan was.
“Go thou and do likewise,” man or woman, mother, father, neighbor, friend or citizen.
I know of no legal nor political remedies to abortion’s many dilemmas, nor to the estrangement between the male and female reflections of God’s image in this fallen world, which lies at abortion’s source. It goes back as far as when Adam scapegoated Eve for his sin (Genesis 3: 12). What is so deeply, intimately physical, sexual and personal is also most deeply, intimately spiritual. Perhaps our best immediate responses today are like those of another time when the church lacked the political and legal power to fix society: when Christians of the Roman Empire adopted, raised and loved new-born infants who were left outside, exposed to die, if the father did not want another child, or a child of that gender. Some pregnancy care ministries take a more wholistic approach like this.
We could spare ourselves so many avoidable heartaches and dilemmas by submitting our sexuality to the Giver of Life, whose first blessing to us in the Bible (Genesis 1: 28) was the power to participate in the generation and transmission of life. But in today’s Culture of Promiscuity, which causes so many abortions, the fact that another human could come into being as a result of “sexual self-expression” is at best a regrettable surprise, an inconvenience and an afterthought. According to the original blessing, however, the most wonderful things about sexual union, even beyond its ecstatic joys and pleasures and marital bonding, are the people whom it brings into being, including every person reading this review.
For more consideration of this topic, I would recommend The Statement on Abortion (2003) of Mennonite Church USA and an insightful essay by Darrin Belousek-Snyder at the Bridgefolk website.