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The makers of Unplanned, the anti-abortion propaganda film that’s earned more than $6 million since its debut in late March, waste no time getting to their point. Just minutes after the lights in the theater go dark, viewers are transported to what’s supposed to be a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, where an aspiration abortion (when a suction device is used) is taking place.
The dramatized scene includes a patient like almost every other patient in the film — young, white, pretty — with her feet in stirrups, the sound of a fetal heartbeat pulsing in the background. “Beam me up, Scotty!” says the doctor, and the young woman cries out as a nurse holds her down. “It hurts! It hurts!” she wails, to which the nurse barks, “You want it done, don’t you?” Moments later, the screen fills with an ultrasound image of a fetus wiggling away from the device. It is here that the filmmakers try to convince the audience that a 13-week fetus is fighting to save itself, when in fact, a fetus can’t even perceive pain — much less respond to it — until at least 24 weeks gestation, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. There is blood, yelling, and more blood, and the abortion is finally completed.
Somewhere in the theater, a woman gasped. And why wouldn’t she? The film is based on the personal (and also precarious) account of former Planned Parenthood staffer turned anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, and has been touted online by Vice-President Mike Pence — under the guise that this is a narrative based in fact rather than a dangerous call to action. And there’s a familiar villain: Writer-directors Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, who previously wrote the religious dramas God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2, make it clear right away that Planned Parenthood is the bad guy here. Meanwhile, Unplanned’s hero is the Coalition for Life — a Christian anti-abortion group in Texas that gathers outside clinics to dissuade women from going inside, and claims on its website that Planned Parenthood’s sex-education program “has a deadly influence on the youth of today.”
Johnson’s journey from the evil claws of Planned Parenthood to the praying hands of the Coalition for Life creates an easy arc, one that allows the filmmakers to spend a lot of time humanizing the saviors in pastel T-shirts gathered at the clinic, and distancing themselves from those other, less civilized protesters — like the sweaty, spiky-haired lump of a man who shouts “Baby killer!” and “Keep your legs closed!” to women getting out of their cars early in the movie. That’s not who we are, the film argues, as if praying outside of a health-care center, and creating an unwelcome audience for women seeking medical attention, is not sanitized harassment. Later in Unplanned, one of the coalition’s leaders extends his arm through the fence and righteously holds his flattened palm over a tub of medical waste.
The film is careful not to blame women for getting abortions. They are instead portrayed as helpless pawns, convinced and manipulated by evil Planned Parenthood staffers eager to swipe their credit cards. In one scene, Johnson’s character pressures a young woman (many of the patients in the film appear to be teenagers, even though just 12 percent of Planned Parenthood abortion patients are adolescents) to have the procedure done that day, because otherwise she will be charged more. As Unplanned would have audiences believe, Planned Parenthood promotes its STI and cancer screenings, wellness exams, and contraception to cover up the fact that it is getting rich off providing abortions. In reality, abortions account for less than 4 percent of its services and more than 70 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from private contributions, government health services reimbursements, and grants, per Planned Parenthood’s most recent annual report.
But even more alarming than these inaccuracies is the film’s assertion that abortion providers will risk anything, even a patient’s life, to keep the money coming in. This is the true crux of the film — that abortion is unsafe — and it comes into focus when Johnson helps a friend’s teenage daughter terminate a pregnancy. The scene begins with the (white, blonde) girl telling Johnson that her parents are pressuring her to have the abortion, and Johnson convincing her that she’s too young to have a baby. When the doctor botches the abortion by perforating the girl’s uterus — something the audience learns through an announcement from the clinic director — Johnson rushes in to see what’s wrong and is shoved out the way. She wants to call an ambulance, but the director refuses: “No, we never do that,” she says, arguing that all the protesters outside will see and it will look bad. The girl survives, but is still unconscious as a nurse wipes bright red blood from her thighs.
Again, the movie strays far from scientific research published in credible medical journals, which have found that major complications in first-trimester abortions occur at a rate less than 0.5 percent. But that is unlikely to matter to Unplanned audiences, who aren’t given those statistics, and may not want them anyway.
It’s also what makes it so hypocritical when the film briefly addresses the 2009 murder of George Tiller, a doctor in Kansas targeted by anti-abortion groups and conservative media for providing later abortions. Johnson is out to dinner with her husband when news breaks that Tiller had been shot at church, and they rush out of the restaurant to hide at her parents’ house with their kids, out of fear for Johnson’s safety. It’s a brief scene, the death of a real person a mere blink that allows for the filmmakers to once again try to separate the Coalition for Life from extremists. What they don’t address is the fact that films like Unplanned can radicalize people who are vulnerable to extremism and have the potential to become violent. It is films like Unplanned that could get more people killed.
Tiller was murdered by a self-proclaimed born-again Christian who shot him in the head. He had previously survived a shooting in 1993 and the firebombing of his clinic in 1986. The creators of Unplanned would have audiences believe that their film and the Coalition for Life, are completely separate from such violence. But Tiller had been villainized by such groups for decades, and on multiple occasions, former Fox host Bill O’Reilly called him “Tiller the Baby Killer” on air. Similarly, anti-abortion groups tried to distance themselves from Robert Dear, who shot and killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in 2015. Even though Dear had no known ties to anti-abortion groups, journalist Amanda Robb wrote in the New Republic that the conservative media likely influenced him. As Robb put it, “I learned from hours of speaking with Dear, the narratives he learned from Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly and countless far-right web sites meshed perfectly with his paranoid delusions, misogynist beliefs, and violent fantasies.”
There are currently 357 Planned Parenthood health centers that provide abortions in the U.S., and already, hundreds of thousands of people have viewed Unplanned. It would only take one of them to create a real-life tragedy.
Toward the end of Unplanned, Johnson’s character tells members of the coalition that in her eight years at Planned Parenthood, she had seen lots of women drive away when they saw protesters praying outside the clinic. “It works,” she says to the other characters, but really, the audience. The message is as subtle as an infomercial: Take to the clinics. It works. In the theater I was in, a woman with white hair nodded and a man in the third row raised his arms up to the ceiling, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was witnessing something scary.
Then the lights came on, and everyone looked perfectly nice.