The protesters hadn’t shown up yet when I walked into the first screening of Unplanned at the one Toronto theatre showing it. Death threats directed at a B.C. theatre had resulted in it cancelling screenings. In Toronto, more security hovered than usual; two staff members hung around in the theatre as the movie played and the audience of 50 or so gasped and murmured on calculated cue.
If you’d told me a year ago I’d be sitting in a Cineplex, watching an anti-abortion movie made by an American producer of low-budget evangelical Christian flicks as necessary background for covering Canadian politics, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here we are. Let that sink in.
The movie, based on Abby Johnson’s 2011 memoir of the same title, chronicles the conversion of a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, from feminist pro-choice champion to zealous anti-choice advocate; Johnson is now a bestselling author, speaker and celebrity in the conservative Christian movement.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is a fan; in April, he tweeted “More & more Americans are embracing the sanctity of life because of powerful stories like this one.” Johnson and Ashley Bratcher, the actress who plays her in the movie, were star attractions at the “March for Life” rally in Ottawa last spring, an event attended by numerous Conservative MPs.
The movie received an R rating in the U.S. In Canada, it’s rated 14+, and comes with a “Gory scenes, disturbing content” warning that presumably refers to the blood pooling on floors and embryos on display. “Abortion isn’t pretty,” Johnson’s character says at one point. That’s true; few medical procedures are. Nor do other procedures raise the complex questions or emotions that abortion does. Even those who support a women’s right to control her body and reproductive health, and who don’t believe women should be forced to give birth, can grapple with the fact that the procedure extinguishes a potential human life. The question then becomes: “Whose life and whose choice do we value more as a society? The fetus or the woman on whom it depends?”
Such queries aren’t pondered in Unplanned, a movie whose disturbing content has less to do with gore than its stealthy scare-mongering and misinformation about abortion that could put women’s health at risk. Its fetus-first message is unrolled slowly in a friendly, made-for-TV-movie format that introduces Johnson as a likeable, smart, pro-choice woman who eloquently defends working at Planned Parenthood to her Christian anti-abortion parents. Threaded throughout is the message that abortion is scary and unsafe, and its providers callous opportunists. (In one scene a girl is left bleeding out in a hall, then given drugs so she won’t remember; in another a doctor says “Beam me up Scotty!” when a fetus is evacuated.) In reality, the risks associated with the procedure performed by specialists are far less than giving birth.
Planned Parenthood is portrayed as a greedy, profit-driven abortion factory. Johnson relates having to sell the procedure like “timeshares.” Yet abortions comprise only 3.4 percent of the non-profit’s activities, according to its most recent annual report. Glossed over is the organization’s vital work providing reproductive and sexual health treatments, including birth control counselling, Pap tests, breast exams, and STD screenings.
Johnson’s boss is presented as a cartoonish Cruella De Vil who refuses to call an ambulance for a girl whose uterus is perforated, fearing PR fall-out (major complications in first-trimester abortions are rare, occurring at a rate of less than half a per cent). The same boss threatens Johnson with the absurd boast that Planned Parenthood is “one of the most powerful organizations on the planet,” whose donors include “Soros, Gates and Buffett.” (Planned Parenthood has refuted its depiction in a statement that, in part, says the movie “promotes many falsehoods including most importantly, distortions and incorrect depictions about healthcare.”)
But Unplanned also contains something I didn’t expect: revelations that inadvertently reinforce the vital importance of choice, though it’s unlikely many viewers will see them. Johnson’s “powerful” story hinges on the very access to abortion she now wants to deny women: she had two abortions at junctures in her life where she was unprepared to carry or raise a child—one while in university, the second after she’d left a “fiasco” first marriage to a no-good guy. (A grisly five-minute scene depicts the aftermath of her taking an abortion pill, typically a safe method. She’s shown haemorrhaging and almost dying by her account accompanied by ominous music.)
Johnson’s life-altering “revelation” occurred when she was assisting an ultrasound-guided abortion, the first procedure she observed in eight years at Planned Parenthood. The scene reveals how we choose what we see, and what we want to believe. Absent of any medical training and contrary to all scientific evidence, Johnson concludes that the 13-week fetus on the screen is consciously recoiling from the cannula, and fighting for its life.
Within days, Johnson allies with the anti-abortion advocates who congregate outside the clinic—not the ones threatening women and telling them “You should have kept your legs closed,” but the nicer, Christian couple who pray at the gate. They’re the side that’s “pro-woman,” and “pro-human-rights,” Johnson concludes, rhetoric that dovetails with messaging now used by the anti-abortion movement. The movie doesn’t follow through on what this compassionate treatment of pregnant women looks like, however. In one scene, the newly-converted Johnson confronts a terrified girl entering the clinic and convinces her not to have an abortion, offering to be there for her “at every step of the way.” It’s the last that girl is seen.
The movie also reveals that Johnson’s crisis of conscience was a long process involving far more than presumed fetal sentience. For close to a decade, her parents and second husband disapproved of her work. (Why a woman who worked at Planned Parenthood was with an anti-choice guy is one the movie’s unanswered questions.) She expresses a disconnect between her growing religious faith and a job her husband repeatedly asks her to quit. The movie also shows her terror after the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas fatally shot in the head by a “pro-life” activist while attending church. Johnson, once a Planned Parenthood “employee of the year” was also having conflicts at work, including a disciplinary action taken against her. The veracity and details of Johnson’s story have long been disputed, including whether there even was an abortion at the clinic on the day she described it. (Johnson responded recently; the author of the original piece countered.) In her memoir, Johnson describes the woman undergoing the surgical abortion that day as African American; in the movie, she’s portrayed as young, white, and teary-eyed. Then again, almost everyone in this movie is white and good-looking, giving it a disconcertingly anodyne quality.
The movie’s portrayal of life inside an busy abortion provider, which includes showing the harassment women experience when trying to enter, also serves as a reminder of how depictions of a common medical procedure remain taboo in mainstream entertainment; movies that deal with abortion in a realistic, non-judgemental way, such as Obvious Child, are celebrated as an exception.
Johnson’s conversion story is hardly the first. Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Doe” in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision now under attack, became a devout Roman Catholic anti-abortion activist later in life. She changed her mind, as is allowed in a society that allows choice.
Nearly 50 years later, Johnson’s story has far more political utility. Many U.S. states are poised to enact legislation that accord more rights to the fetus than to the woman who carries it; a decade ago, states introduced fetal-pain laws despite a lack of evidence of fetal pain; the consequences were horrific for some women. More recently, “fetal heartbeat” laws ban abortion before many woman even know they’re pregnant. Alabama recently voted to ban abortion even in pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. In Georgia, women face 30 years in jail for having a miscarriage. Texas is so “pro-life” it’s considering the death penalty for women who get abortions.
Planned Parenthood has been a Trump target for years. Last month, the president saw a victory when a federal court ruled the government can deny federal funding to non-profit and other family planning organizations that also provide abortions or referrals for them. Abortion rights advocates now fear thousands of low-income Americans will lose access to reproductive health care.
North of the border, Unplanned has revealed solidarity for reproductive rights, with protests and Cineplex boycotts planned. It also has exposed an emboldened political contingent that wants to restrict them, seen at the “March for Life” Ottawa rally. The anti-abortion lobby Campaign Life Coalition, chronicled the political presence; a press conference it hosted in the Parliamentary press gallery was attended by Abby Johnson, along with Conservative MPs Arnold Viersen, Brad Trost and Bev Shipley. Ten Conservative MPs and Senator Norman Doyle, attended the rally at which Johnson spoke.
At the time, Trost stoked controversy by claiming Canadians were being denied access to the movie. That’s false; the movie simply needed a Canadian distributor, which arrived in the form of Fredericton-based Cinedicom, run by B.J. McKelvie, a pastor.
Chatter surrounding the movie has also allowed for corrections to common abortion myths. Trost was corrected after he said there are no rules governing abortion in Canada in a tweet: “Canada, we have ZERO protections for our babies, so the need for this film to be shown across the country is crucial.” That’s not true. Since abortion was decriminalized in 1988, it has been treated like any other health service in Canada, governed by provinces and, yes, rules. Each provider can impose a gestational limit as a part of their practice depending on their training and the facilities available to them. Currently, no abortion provider in Canada is listed offering the procedure past 23 weeks and 6 days.
There’s a reason major party leaders say that they’re not going to reopen the abortion debate. It’s political poison. The fact Cineplex elected to show the movie on only 14 of its 1,700 screens for one week only, also reflects the limited market for Unplanned’s message. (It’s also showing at other theatres for a total of 56 screens.)
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, like Stephen Harper before him, has followed suit, with the proviso that he won’t prevent MPs from raising the issue, again evoking “freedom of speech.” Yet at its annual meeting in Halifax last year, the party voted for the first time on deleting the 2014 motion dictating that the party will not legislate on abortion; it was defeated by a narrow margin. In May, when the House of Commons gave a standing ovation for reproductive rights, the Conservatives didn’t participate. Predictably, the Liberals are making political hay with the issue.
Abortion rights groups have also seized upon the screenings to draw attention to the fact that unequal access to abortion persists in Canada. Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, an Ottawa-based charity, is participating in the public conversation about the movie despite its limited release, Frédérique Chabot, the organization’s director of health education, told me. “It’s not benign to show movies that present inaccurate health information as fact, and overtly use emotional manipulation to inform people’s opinion on a real medical procedure that is often politically threatened.”
Action Canada is also using the movie’s release to fundraise; it’s asking for a $12 donation—the price of a ticket—in every community where Unplanned is being shown to help fund travel and accommodation for women who have difficulty obtaining access to abortion. “Most providers are in urban centres,” Chabot says. “Women outside of those big cities are forced to travel hundreds if not thousands of kilometres to access a provider. For some people, it means they don’t have a choice.” In May, it was reported that dozens of Canadian women travel to the U.S. annually to obtain abortions paid for by provinces; thus, the restrictions in that country will affect women here.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada has called Unplanned “a dangerous piece of anti-abortion propaganda that “could incite fanatics to commit acts of harassment or violence against clinics or doctors.” Toward the movie’s end, Johnson’s character actually encourages protests outside clinics when she shares a “deep, dark secret” that Planned Parenthood doesn’t want people to know about with her new allies—and the audience: that seeing protestors outside clinics results in high no-shows of women seeking an abortion, a statement that has been disputed. The underlying assumption here is that these women will forfeit getting an abortion; more likely, they’ll seek abortion from a less safe provider. At movie’s end, there’s a plug for Johnson’s organization “And Then There Were None,” which helps abortion workers leave their jobs, as if escaping a hostage situation. It has helped 500 workers to leave what it describes as “the abortion industry,” the message states, with a phone number to call.
Just before that, the movie’s final scene is set at Johnson’s old Planned Parenthood clinic after it’s closed (the clinic was actually shuttered in 2013 in state-wide legislation-induced closures.) So much for it being “one of the most powerful organizations on the planet.” A construction worker wearing a hardhat with an American flag sticker on it bulldozes the sign down, as the crowd cheers: “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” he shouts. Johnson delivers a tearful speech expressing regret about the abortions she enabled, and herself had on the “altar of convenience.”
Nowhere is there any recognition that the life Johnson now treasures—the devoted anti-choice husband, the adorable daughter, the public profile as an anti-abortion crusader who’s a political asset on both sides of the border—stemmed from her ability to access abortion, not once but twice. And without her ability make that choice, ironically, there would be no over-hyped movie to remind us that it can’t be taken for granted.