'Unplanned' was birthed by faithful prayer, says 40 Days for Life founder

A scene from the movie 'Unplanned,' in theaters March 29, 2019.
A scene from the movie "Unplanned," in theaters March 29, 2019. | Photo:

The story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned pro-life advocate, is powerfully portrayed in the upcoming film "Unplanned," a story birthed by thousands of hours of fervent prayer.

Shawn Carney is the man behind many those prayers. He heads the 40 Days for Life campaign that began in Texas in the fall of 2004. The organization holds continuous, round-the-clock 40-day prayer campaigns every fall and during Lent. As intercessors, they peacefully pray outside abortion clinics, petitioning God to intervene and save the lives of the unborn children and their mothers.

In just 15 years, 40 Days for Life has become a global movement with hundreds of thousands of volunteer intercessors who pray and keep vigil outside Planned Parenthood clinics just like the one where Johnson once worked, which was eventually shut down.

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When Johnson exited the abortion industry a decade ago, it was Carney and his wife who helped her find new employment and guided her through the process of leaving the cause she once passionately believed in.

Carney and Johnson remain great friends and through their faithful prayers and efforts they continue to see clinic employees have a change of heart about abortion.

In "Unplanned," Carney is portrayed by actor Jarod Lotz. The movie is named after Johnson's 2014 memoir of the same name. 

The Christian Post spoke to Carney in a recent phone interview about the power of prayer, what it's like to see the fruit of his intercession on the big screen, and what's ahead for the pro-life movement. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

CP: Did you ever think Abby's story, especially given your role in it, would be captured in a motion picture?

SC: No. The whole thing sounds made up, right? We went out there and prayed for and talked to Abby when she was a volunteer, my wife and I both did. When Abby became the director of the Planned Parenthood office we had many conversations with her and she was the Planned Parenthood employee of the year. And now we're running around the country promoting the movie about her conversion story. It literally sounds made up and it's a story that could only be written by the power of prayer.

I say that now and I said that 10 years ago when she walked into my office. There were some media outlets and some people, both pro-life people and pro-choice people, who said Abby was a phony and that "She's got you fooled. She's just a disgruntled employee."

Abby had to deal with that a lot when she first left. There were people, when I was trying to help find her a job, who would not hire her and people who held a grudge. And it was eye-opening for me in that sense. I said the same thing now as I did back then, which was: "I know this woman. I've known her for eight years and the only way she would be drawn out of the abortion facility and industry is through an actual conversion."

People leave for different reasons, and we have a lot of [abortion clinic] workers who have, but she had a change of heart. And I firmly believe that's the day she walked into my office. And I firmly believe that now.

CP: When she walks into your office with that change of heart and she's weeping profusely, how accurately is that depicted in the movie?

SC: Perfectly. I'd never seen her cry. In my dealings with Abby, she was either being nice or mean, the two extremes.

But I'd never seen her emotionally distraught. When I opened the door and I saw a broken person I knew something was going on. She needed to know we were there for her.

So when I walked in and said, "It looks like you've had a hard day at the office," she kind of laughed and said, "Yeah, you could say that."

And that was in Abby's book and they put that in the movie. She was acting the way she should have. She witnessed an abortion and not just witnessed it but then reflected on it and realized: "I've been part of this and I need to get out of here." It was much more than seeing something ugly and wanting to get away from it.

Abby Johnson, left, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, stands next to Shawn Carney, National Campaign Director of 40 Days for Life, whose group prays outside the clinic.
Abby Johnson, left, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, stands next to Shawn Carney, National Campaign Director of 40 Days for Life, whose group prays outside the clinic. | (Photo: Coalition for Life)

CP: "Unplanned" is being released at a time when we have a President in Donald Trump who was once supportive of abortion and is now, to the shock of many, a vocal defender of the unborn. And as state legislatures increasingly consider passing legislation allowing abortion up to birth, discussions have surfaced related to doctors ending the lives of babies born alive after botched abortions.

What do you make of the fact that this film will be shown in theaters in this particular season where the abortion issue is rattling our politics in such a visceral way?

SC: There has never been a better time in the history of the United States than right now. And the reason for that is because we in America are officially in uncharted waters. We have never, ever had a majority of politicians who are advocating for infanticide. We've simply never had that. Where a baby girl will be on a table, need medical help, and we will not give it to her.

There's this new wave of a barbaric norm where we accept this and people think this is a legitimate political stance. But this has nothing to do with politics. You can love Donald Trump, you can hate Donald Trump. But nobody in our country should want to leave an infant on a table to die. And the reality that America is facing right now is that the same arguments that you can use to justify abortion you can also use to justify infanticide. It's just that nobody does it. And now we have politicians in our country doing it. It's a sobering time in our nation and it has certainly brought waves of people into 40 Days for Life and waves of enthusiasm.

And what a movie. What a movie to remind us of what we are doing in our country, but also remind us of the power of prayer and the power of hope. Abby's story is that story. I knew her. For eight years she was committed to Planned Parenthood. She worked early in the morning. She worked late at night. She did media interviews. She did everything they wanted her to do and when she saw her "product" for the first time she got out. And that was not a late-term abortion, that was not infanticide, that was a 13-week-old baby boy. And it's really becoming a beautiful light on the barbaric nature of all abortions.

CP: In view of what Ephesians 6 says about spiritual warfare — that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in high places — how have you seen continuous, unbroken prayer, the kind of intercession you all practice outside abortion clinics, dismantle the evil in the spiritual realm?

SC: Well, it's just the timeless battle of life versus death. And Christ is the victor. He lays down His life on Good Friday. It's truly the week that changed the world that we are approaching. That is where our confidence is. There is so much spiritual warfare. And the devil certainly works through abortion to disguise himself and to convince people that it's a responsible thing, a good thing. That it's health care and that it's wonderful.

And yet, it's something that when you step back ... we wouldn't wish this on members of ISIS. We wouldn't wish this on our greatest enemy, this horrible surgery. And our trust is in that ultimate victory of Christ at Calvary.

I've had so many people — Catholic, Protestant, evangelical — come up to me and say something along the lines of: "We were always going to participate in 40 Days for Life and we've finally decided to do it. We went out there and we prayed at the vigil and you're really there at the foot of the cross."

It's not a depressing thing. It is sad. But Mary and John aren't angry that they are at the foot of the cross. They're there out of faithfulness to our Lord. That faithfulness in the midst of great evil is really why I believe abortion is going to end in America. I think people need to know that there is obviously so much spiritual warfare going on with the movie and everything else. But it doesn't end there. There's got to be a pivot. And this movie will be such a beautiful witness to the power of hope and healing.

CP: In this season where your work is being vindicated and celebrated publicly, and in light of all the success, what is next for you and 40 Days for Life?

SC: We've had unprecedented growth in the past two years especially. We've done a lot to catch up with our growth. And we're going to get a lot of volunteers when the movie comes out. It's already happening. We have had so many people say, "I had never even heard of 40 Days for Life and then I went to your website and I went out and prayed at my local abortion facility because I saw a preview of the movie."

It's going to be a beautiful wave to volunteers and prayer warriors and a potential 40 Days for Life leaders and we need that help. We have 800,000 volunteers around the world. We're in 816 cities in 56 countries.

I think what's going to happen is that we're going to have the largest fall 40 Days for Life that we have ever had, which is in late September.

It's testament to these heroes who go out and peacefully pray, lead their campaigns and they are ending abortion at the local level. And that is something that Planned Parenthood in Washington, D.C., and New York City are completely detached from. They are completely detached from their staff and their facilities at the local level. Abby felt that when she was working there. It's very top-heavy.

The pro-life movement is built from the ground-up and 40 Days for Life is certainly built from the ground-up. And that should give us great hope moving forward.

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