Imagine waking up in a pregnant body that isn’t yours—and then being faced with a difficult decision about whether or not to terminate the pregnancy.
It sounds like the premise of a sci-fi flick, but it’s actually the opening moments of a new virtual reality documentary currently in the works.
The Choice lets viewers step into the consciousness of a pregnant woman who is debating whether or not she should have an abortion. With the help of special VR goggles, viewers can actually look down to see the simulation of a slight computer-generated bump where their stomach should be, giving the appearance that they themselves are pregnant.
“You ‘wake up’ to realize that you are in someone else’s body—a female’s body,” says filmmaker Joanne-Aska Popinska , who raised more than $15,000 on Kickstarter to fund the creation of her documentary. “You hear a voice inside your head: How could this happen? What should I do? These words float through the air around you, making you feel as though the thoughts are yours—that this panic is yours,” she says. As these words swirl around you in this simulation world, pop-ups also appear before you, revealing real women sharing their own experiences with abortion.
If this sounds intense, it’s because it’s meant to be. By using immersive VR, Popinska hopes viewers will get a more personal and intimate perspective into all the feelings and emotions that go into the decision to have an abortion. “In creating these experiences, we can give viewers a better understanding and help them experience real empathy by putting them into the minds of others,” notes the project’s Kickstarter campaign.
Why make a film about the decision to have an abortion?
Popinska, who is based in Toronto, moved to Canada in 2013 from her native Poland. When she was growing up, Popinska remembers the country’s strict abortion laws, which make it almost impossible to terminate a pregnancy (unless the fetus has a defect or abnormality, the expectant mother’s life is at risk, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest), and the devastating effect these laws had on her friends. Not much has changed. In fact, three years after she relocated, in 2016, she was startled by the news that close to 4,000 Polish doctors signed a “declaration of faith” stating their refusal to prescribe contraception or participate in abortion, in vitro fertilization and other women’s health-related medical procedures. And this past January, the Polish government passed proposals to restrict abortions even further, arguing to outlaw abortion even in cases where there is a fetal defect.
And it was the Polish government’s continuous attempts to further restrict abortion laws that spurred Popinska to create The Choice. She felt the appropriately-titled doc was urgently needed to help spread more awareness to both the public and policy makers on the necessity of choice in this deeply personal matter.
As she nears the completion of the teaser-trailer for her doc, Popinska hopes that The Choice will eventually be used by both teachers and pro-choice activists as a learning tool to give people a better idea of what it’s truly like to be faced with an unwanted pregnancy. She plans to have the demo wrapped by the end of this summer, and will make the film available through various app stores.
Why tell this story in VR?
Abortion is a heated topic—even in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pro-choice government. Doug Ford, the newly-elected leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, has toyed with the idea of reopening the abortion debate, arguing that young women should require their parents’ permission to have one. In the U.S., President Donald Trump plans to defund Planned Parenthood, which would further restrict women’s access to abortion. And although the procedure has been legal in Canada since 1988, it’s not always easily accessible and still carries stigma.
But there’s a difference between having an opinion on abortion and actually experiencing an unwanted pregnancy. For Popinska, VR is a way to help people understand the realities of the procedure in a very intimate way. “People understand when abortion happens in their own life, or to someone they know, but by using VR and showing real stories and real women, it puts the understanding on a different level,” she says—and she’s not the only one with the mindset.
Award-winning filmmaker Chris Milk, who created VR media company WITHIN, echoes this sentiment. For years, he has argued that VR can encourage more empathy in people by placing them directly in simulated situations. In his 2015 TED Talk, for example, he said that the medium “connects humans to other humans in a profound way that [he’s] never seen before in any other form of media.”
“It can change people’s perception of each other,” he said. “I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”