By Dave Hrbacek
Emagine Waconia Theatre didn’t intend to show the abortion-themed movie “Unplanned” when the film premiered at the end of March.
But that changed thanks to Mary Olson, a 31-year-old mother and member of St. Joseph in Waconia. When she heard last fall about the movie — which is based on the true conversion story of former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson — Olson decided to start a campaign to get a showing in Waconia.
Her persistence — and the response of local Catholics — paid off. Emagine ended up showing “Unplanned” in two of its auditoriums March 31, filling both of them with 216 people from St. Joseph and surrounding parishes and churches. The theater went on to offer public showings through April 11.
Olson began calling the theater in January and spent the next two months petitioning the manager. He finally agreed to the March 31 showings.
“It was a lot of work for the past two months, but it was 100 percent worth it,” said Olson, a member of her parish’s Women of St. Joseph committee, which supported her efforts. “Seeing the 216 people come to see the movie warmed my heart and made me very happy.”
The movie appears to be mobilizing Olson and other pro-life forces across the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and around the country as the film — despite serious obstacles including reluctance by theaters to show it — surged to No. 4 at the box office on its opening weekend and continues going strong. It stayed in the top 10 its second week, and already local pro-life leaders are seeing more people take action in the Twin Cities to defend the unborn.
“The movie is driving people to the sidewalks” to pray and offer counseling to pregnant women in front of Planned Parenthood’s facility in St. Paul, said Brian Gibson, 63, executive director of Pro-life Action Ministries, which organizes prayer vigils at Planned Parenthood. “We’re out there all the time, so we’re seeing it happen. Anytime throughout the day, it’s happening. We’ve gotten a lot of interest in sidewalk counseling, having people just call and say, ‘I want to sidewalk counsel.’”
Jennifer Fischer of Nowthen took to the pavement in front of Planned Parenthood after seeing the movie April 1. She organized a group of 14 women, including her two daughters, to watch the film in Elk River. Her oldest daughter had asked her to go, and she decided it would be good to go with both of her daughters so they could understand “why we’re pro-life.”
The next day, Fischer called Pro-Life Action Ministries, and was in front of Planned Parenthood in St. Paul a week later to observe sidewalk counseling. She plans to continue going, and in the fall will participate in training at PLAM to become a sidewalk counselor.
“It broke my heart watching the movie,” said Fischer, a mother of five who belongs to Abundant Life Alliance Church in Oak Grove, of seeing the pain
women go through when they have an abortion. “I totally heard God say to me in the theater, ‘It’s time to get involved.’”
She brought her daughters to Planned Parenthood and was with a group of more than a dozen women April 8 for an hour and a half. It was her first visit to the abortion facility.
“We held signs and we prayed and I talked to the sidewalk counselor,” said Fischer, 39, whose conviction to be a sidewalk counselor grew during her experience at Planned Parenthood. “I want to be here for these women. It’s not just the babies I care about.”
Gibson said the response of Fischer and others like her is a key development, in part because sidewalk counseling is what drove Johnson in 2009 to leave the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, where she had worked for eight years. After turning in her resignation Oct. 6 of that year, she went to the office of Coalition for Life and met with its director, Shawn Carney.
As documented in the movie, which is based on her 2011 book bearing the same title, she eventually began praying in front of the clinic she once directed. She later started an organization called And Then There Were None, which helps abortion clinic workers leave the industry. All during Johnson’s time at Planned Parenthood, Coalition for Life volunteers and staff members, including Carney, had prayed for her and talked to her regularly in the clinic parking lot, offering compassion and an invitation to help her if she left.
Carney now runs an organization called 40 Days for Life, which facilitates 40-day prayer vigils across the country, including in Minnesota. Gibson helps organize the vigils in the Twin Cities. His organization also runs more events, including an annual Good Friday prayer vigil — which this year will be 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 19 at Planned Parenthood in St. Paul — and Jericho marches, where people pray in front of Planned Parenthood on seven consecutive days.
Most of the people who saw the movie in Waconia are ardently pro-life, Olson said. Maria Boecker of Guardian Angels in Chaska was among them, taking her husband, Bill, their three adult daughters, and three other guests.
“We visit Planned Parenthood once or twice a year [to pray], ” said Boecker, 53, “and so it’s a cause close to our hearts.”
She has read Johnson’s book and said the movie “brought it to life.” Now, she is “telling everybody to go.” Though the movie is rated R for violence, primarily due to scenes that show the abortion process both during and afterward, Boecker said, “Parents need to bring their kids.”
One of Boecker’s children, Larissa Boecker, decided to see the movie even though she supports abortion under certain circumstances. She said she learned some things from watching the movie and has modified her views, though her stance on birth control and abortion do not conform with Catholic teaching.
“I have a lot of mixed thoughts (about abortion)” said Larissa, 27, who has gone to Planned Parenthood for birth control, but said she would not choose abortion. “I do think that Planned Parenthood offers some benefits, such as birth control and STD (sexually transmitted disease) testing and that type of stuff. I did not, before watching the movie, realize that they were pushing abortion as … the first option (for dealing with an unplanned pregnancy). My main takeaway is I don’t think that is correct. I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it. I think that (abortion) should be the absolute last resort.”
Larissa noticed the contrast in the movie between two different types of pro-life supporters: those who shout at women and make judgmental comments, and those who offer compassion, kindness and support. She feels the latter are more effective, and wants pro-life supporters to understand this point.
“I would just say that it’s not an easy choice for anyone to make, and that one of the best things to do is to be there for them,” she said of reaching out to a pregnant woman trying to decide what to do. “If you come at them in a non-supportive way, you’re just going to turn them further away.”
Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, said he thinks the movie can play a major role in changing hearts and minds, from supporting abortion to supporting life.
“It’s an important film,” said Fischbach, 53, who has been involved in the pro-life movement since 1978 and with MCCL since 2001. “There’s so many avenues now for us to get out our pro-life message, and seeing it up there on the big screen is another hugely important avenue for us. So, I’m excited that it’s reaching a whole new audience.”
Fischbach said he thinks it can draw people who “are in the middle” or “ambivalent” on the issue of abortion.
“This can be an eye opener,” he said. “This can touch people’s hearts. We’re already seeing it.”
“Unplanned” was shown in 1,059 theaters nationwide opening weekend and expanded to 1,515 the second week, according to Carmel Communications in Roswell, Georgia. In Minnesota, 33 theaters showed it opening weekend, with 25 more offering it the second week. It also will be released as a DVD, with a release date yet to be determined.
“It’s perfect timing, frankly,” Fischbach said of the movie’s opening in theaters. “Some of the folks have actually said that it’s providential. I believe that. It is time. Abby’s story needs to be told.”
He is hopeful that, as pro-life legislation moves forward at the state and federal levels, the “one big hurdle” can finally be overcome — the overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973.
Gibson shares that hope, but with guarded optimism.
“It’s a long-term battle, still,” he said. “Roe v. Wade is not going to be overturned tomorrow afternoon. It may not be in the next 10 years, for all we know. It may not even be in the next 20 years. But, in the meantime, we can cripple the abortion industry if we put our minds to it. The Church herself could do that if we, the people of God, step up to the plate.”
And step into a theater to watch “Unplanned.”
“Anybody and everybody … needs to go see the movie,” he said. “Because it will give insight and understanding of what abortion really is that you’ve never had before, and give you the inspiration to understand that there is something the individual can do about it that’s positive and profound.”
This story originally appeared on http://thecatholicspirit.com/, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis