“I saw it, and it was like it was twisting and fighting for its life.” So says Abby Johnson, former Planned Parenthood clinic director and lead character in Unplanned, the anti-abortion propaganda movie – based on the widely debunked memoir by a woman of the same name – which has become a runaway US hit, making over $14 million in its first two weeks.
Unplanned depicts Johnson’s account of her experience as a formerly enthusiastic Planned Parenthood employee, and how – as she describes it – she gradually became jaded, then horrified by her first sight of an abortion. The movie ends with her quitting her job at the clinic to join The Coalition for Life, an anti-abortion group down the street. In real life, Johnson has spent her time since quitting Planned Parenthood in 2009 becoming a prominent advocate for anti-abortion, publishing the memoir on which the film is based in 2011.
Unplanned was the fourth-highest grossing movie in the US on its opening weekend (March 29-31), and has already received endorsements from Mike Pence, Donald Trump Jr. and Ted Cruz. The film’s trailer promises viewers they will “discover the truth,” but the reality is one of manipulation, misrepresentation, and the invigoration of a nationwide trend which threatens the safety of women and their rights over their bodies.
The reach of such films must not be underestimated. Another anti-abortion movie, Gosnell, was screened by the White House last week. President Trump was apparently not present, but he has already proven himself an enthusiastic proponent of blatant abortion lies for the sake of political capital – claiming in a statement in February that New York lawmakers would happily “allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.”
Planned Parenthood is depicted as “one of the most powerful organisations in the world,” a ruthless machine devoted to coercing women into as many abortions as possible for profit. This is hugely misleading. Over 70 percent of Planned Parenthood’s revenue comes from private contributions, government health services reimbursements, and grants. Abortions account for only 4 percent of Planned Parenthood activities, more than 90 per cent of which are preventative. These include wellness exams, contraception, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment.
By default, the organisation’s activities minimise abortions, by preventing unwanted pregnancies. To suggest otherwise perpetuates the false narrative of a heartless “abortion industry” beloved by the conservative press, which has already seized upon the film’s spin. But the menaced threat of Planned Parenthood is far from the most dangerous message of Unplanned.
The ‘fighting’ foetus of the 13 week abortion Johnson describes witnessesing prior to her conversion is impossible. A foetus doesn’t develop the capacity to perceive pain – let alone respond to it – until at least the third trimester. The sight of Johnson first guiding people towards having abortions, then sobbing and shocked, paints women as ignorant pawns. It amplifies a message which gained traction with Kavanaugh’s journey to the Supreme Court last year – that women who seek abortions must not be fully aware of what they are doing, because what they are doing is so awful that no-one in good conscience could go through with it. It is logic based in the premise that there is no distinction between a developing foetus and a functioning human.
That portrayal of early foetuses as sentient creatures tugs at the an emotional and wholly unscientific thread which continues to spur legislative change. The foetal heartbeat bill passed in Ohio last Thursday sees abortions banned as early as five or six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.
A fully-formed heart can be hooked up to a machine and beat outside of the body, but independently of a complete and fully-functioning human to go with it, a beating heart is not a signifier of conscious human life. The very name of the foetal heartbeat bill bypasses this critical technicality, and like Unplanned, tugs at the heartstrings, rather than appealing to the brain. Ohio is the fifth state to pass such a bill.
The bloody horror-show of the on-screen procedure itself is also incredibly misleading. Less than one per cent of women experience complications during abortions. DIY abortions on the other hand are very dangerous, even when managed with unprescribed pills rather than invasive procedures – and punitive measures do not deter women from undertaking them.
Initiatives such as those considered last week in Texas – where lawmakers floated a bill which would make abortion a crime punishable by death – only serve to force women into attempting life-threatening self-treatment in hiding. After the 2008 financial crisis, as abortion rights diminished, online searches about self-induced abortions nearly doubled.
Unplanned plays into the hands of the anti-abortion lobby, making ghouls of the benign, and saints of the incendiary. In Unplanned director Chuck Konzelman’s Congressional testimony last week, he claimed that since the film’s release, 94 clinic workers have already sought help to leave their jobs. Irrespective of whether that bears out, direct action such as protesting outside clinics, which the film advocates, has the potential to escalate in ways which have proven deadly for healthcare providers in the past. Even where protest is relatively benign it is intimidating and upsetting, especially for patients who might already be going through one of the most difficult events of their lives.
The attention Unplanned is receiving by those in power is already marked. Ted Cruz has ordered a Senate hearing into the accidental suspension of the Unplanned Twitter account. If Unplanned nudges an attack on Roe closer to the Supreme Court, women’s rights – and their lives – will be in greater danger than ever.