Unplanned, the recent film about abortion and Abby Johnson, has been in the news a lot lately; this is in part thanks to the lead actress Ashley Bratcher, who has been very transparent about her own story and her own passion for the pro-life movement.
Ashley recently opened up about her unplanned pregnancy, and we wanted to know more about her motherhood story. In this interview, Ashley is talking with EM about working and traveling as a mom, how she talks with her son about abortion, and how becoming a mother empowered her to pursue her dreams.
EM: How did you start your career in acting?
I was in college when I first started acting, and then I began pursuing it professionally after I graduated. I moved up to NYC to find work, but honestly I really wasn’t ready to be there.
I was young and naive, and I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons. I only lasted there about 6 months before heading back to my hometown in North Carolina.
That time in my life was filled with a lot of soul-searching, and seeking purpose. I wasn’t sure what to do professionally, and my fiance broke up with me. We were highschool sweethearts, on again off again, and then in the middle of all of that I found I was pregnant.
We knew abortion would never be an option for us, but this was still really hard. I had no job, we weren’t married, I had no health insurance. A lot of things were not working in our favor so we had to fight really hard to make it all work.
About a month after my son Cohen was born, my husband David and I got married, and I gave up on acting. I decided that would be a sacrifice that I’d have to make — it just wasn’t for me, it wasn’t going to happen for me anymore. I needed a stable job and acting was not that. My college degree was in graphic design and I found a job teaching middle school art.
Often when I was teaching, I remember that my kids would come into my room, so excited because art was an outlet for them in so many ways. But then also, sometimes they would hear that art wouldn’t be a “good career”, that they couldn’t pursue that long-term, and they would come to me discouraged.
But I really believe that when we have a passion for something, it’s there for a reason, and that’s what I would tell those kids. I would say, “hey, you can do anything you want. If art is your passion, it’s there for a reason.”
And then one day that clicked for me — I realized I was preaching to these kids and not taking my own advice.
I really missed acting. My son was 2 at the time.
I felt like if I didn’t go for it, I would have a lot of regret. I didn’t want to be resentful, and I didn’t want my child to think I couldn’t pursue my dreams because of him. I wanted him to know that I could be his mother, and that I was empowered by him, to do just that.
So I started getting back into it by taking classes in a film community about 1.5 hours away from where we lived. When I started getting work almost immediately, that was enough affirmation for me to believe I could do it. My husband was super supportive throughout this, and we prayed about it a lot, and we moved to the coast.
EM: Acting often requires a lot of travel and long days away from home. How do you and your family make this work for you?
Actually when my son was about 3, he started acting with me. Commercials are always looking for real mother-son duos, and we loved that because it was a way for us to bond and travel together. Cohen always got excited to go on a trip with mommy to do some acting. It was a wonderful time in our relationship and so great to have those special memories together.
Last year, at the ripe old age of 8, my son decided to retire from acting. The content for kids these days can get a little heavy, and he didn’t want to be part of it anymore. So last year we started working through what it’s like for me to travel without him.
One of the hardest things about this is that both my husband and son’s love languages are quality time and physical time. Those are the two hardest to pour into when you’re traveling. It can be really difficult to meet that need.
We do a lot of FaceTime, because that requires you to be present. You have to look at the other person and really be more engaged, you can’t just listen and also be doing something else like you can on the phone. So FaceTiming has been really critical.
Also, my son loves bedtime stories. Almost every night since he was 1, we have read a bedtime story. When I travel, I will bring one of his books with me and I read it to him on FaceTime at bedtime.
Sometimes it’s just a book that he and I have together, that’s our little thing. Right now it’s “Where the Red Fern Grows,” and he only reads it with mom. It makes for a fun thing for other people to watch sometimes, because I still do it when I’m at dinner or on set and things like that, but it’s special for him, and it means a lot to him, and when I take the time to do that every night he knows that he’s important to me.
EM: How did you feel when you landed the role in Unplanned?
When I got the phone call that I had landed the role in Unplanned, I was excited, but they asked me to get on a plane in 5 hours.
And to stay on set for 7 weeks.
Five hours is not a lot of time to plan for 7 weeks of childcare, and that was by far the longest consecutive time I had ever traveled away from my family.
But my husband and I had prayed about it a lot, and we knew that especially with this film, it was SO important. And though we knew there would be short-term sacrifices for our family, we knew it would be worth it.
So when I called my husband and told him that I had the part, he just asked me to make sure Cohen got picked up at the bus stop that day, and we would figure out the rest from there. My mother-in-law is really close by, so that was key. As a team, we were able to pull together a plan.
Also, we live in a military area, and military spouses are really incredible too. They’re used to their spouses being deployed and having to lean into each other in a community setting. So when I called one of my friends, who is a military spouse, that day when I had to leave in 5 hours, I’ll always be thankful that she said without batting an eye, “no problem, I’ll be there today to pick up Cohen.”
EM: Since you were filming for 7 weeks, Cohen was probably naturally curious about the project you were working on. How did you talk to him about abortion?
We knew that we were going to have a conversation with him about this movie.
David and Cohen came out to visit me halfway through filming. That was a long time for me to be gone, and Cohen was really struggling with it— and my husband and I really thought that we needed to explain to him what this movie is and why I needed to do it.
It was also a really important time for me personally, because just a few days after I got on set my mom had called me and told me that I had almost been aborted, and that was the first time I had found that out.
So it was just such an important film in so many ways, and we thought it would give him more peace to support me and understand why our whole family was making this sacrifice.
When he came out to visit me I started to explain what the movie was about. I had done a lot of Googling on “how to talk to your kids about abortion” but it’s hard to find good resources on that.
I really tried to put the ball in his court, and I didn’t tell him with any bias. I didn’t say, “mommy thinks abortion is wrong,” but I told him that sometimes there are circumstances where women feel like they’re not going to be good mommies. They just really feel like there is absolutely no possible way that they could be good mommies. And I asked him, “Cohen, do you think it’s okay in that situation for the doctor to take the baby out of the mommy?”
He said, “what do you mean?” He didn’t quite understand, so I added, “for that baby not to live?”
And Cohen said, “Mommy, why would you kill a life that’s just beginning?”
It’s so simple for kids. They just get it. It’s not complicated, they understand that it’s life, and that it’s beginning.
So this was the beginning of a really long, heartfelt conversation with Cohen. I talked to him about how this is something that’s legal, and that not everyone agrees with us. But I told him that is what we’re fighting to do with this movie: to show them that there is humanity inside the mommy, because sometimes people just don’t understand that. The the baby deserves to live and be loved.
As Abby Johnson says: “We don’t just want to make abortion illegal, we want to make it unthinkable.” We want people to see the humanity in the womb.
Cohen was so proud from that point on. He was proud that God had called his mommy to do this, and this was a sacrifice that our family was making, so that we could put this message out in the world.
Of course he still has moments where he will say, I wish you weren’t doing this, right now, but I still understand that it’s important. He’s really a wonderful kid and he is so supportive.
EM: Have you received any negative feedback since the movie was released? How do you respond to people who disagree with you about abortion?
I have worked through over 500 messages so far since the movie was released, and what’s amazing is that only 3 of them were hateful.
I do respond to them too, in love, because I really think that when someone lashes out it’s coming from a very personal place of hurt. With each of those 3 messages, I was really grateful that they had taken the time to message me too and I wanted to answer their questions too.
One girl specifically messaged me and literally told me to go to hell, but as we talked, it was only a few messages later that she started telling me that she had been raped at age 15.
People who lash out are doing so from a very personal place, with wounds that haven’t been healed. Whether it’s their own wound or perhaps it was their sister or their mother, sometimes it’s just really horrible, traumatizing situations that are really hard to cope with.
I truly try to respond in love and gently remind them that there is a second victim of their situation, and that’s the baby too. It is heartbreaking to know that they had to go through what they did. And I really think responding in love is what tears down walls.
EM: What advice would you have for other parents who are trying to figure out the best way to address this and other tough topics?
I did take Cohen to see the movie. I probably wouldn’t recommend it for most 9-year-olds, but I’ve seen it at least 100 times, and I knew exactly where the tough parts were. So I was able to help Cohen know when would be a good time to cover his eyes and close his ears. He did that for some of the scenes, and for other parts he watched and processed and he had a lot of GREAT questions afterwards.
I was glad that I was the one that he came to with those questions. For moms especially, I think it is so important that you start talking to your kids about sex and about abortion and other topics like that as soon as you think they are mature enough to handle it.
My son was in first grade when he came home and said, “what’s a vagina?” I remember thinking, “WOW I’m not ready for this.”
Kids have questions, and they want to know the answers. So as soon as they have those questions, as hard as it might be, unashamedly have a conversation. Your kids should feel that they can have that conversation with YOU, and that they don’t have to be embarrassed.
Abortion is in the headlines. And if your kids are in school, there will be kids there whose moms and dads said there’s nothing wrong with abortion, there’s no such thing as a baby in the womb. Our kids need the truth and to know how to respond with love.
If you invite them to have those conversations with you, if you open that door early, it will stay open.