A woman is running late for work. It’s Saturday, and her young daughter, tiny and blonde, is pouting. She doesn’t want her mother to go. The girl is also upset that her father has cut her toast into squares, not triangles. The mother bends over the plate and cuts each piece of bread down the centre, making the right shape. Her husband exclaims, “That’s why you’re the mommy!” But Mommy doesn’t have time for her own breakfast. It’s her busiest day at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas where she works. She dashes out, breaking the scene of domestic bliss.
Those are the opening minutes of Unplanned, which premiered in Canada on July 12. The movie is based on Abby Johnson’s call-to-action memoir, which details her journey from Planned Parenthood’s youngest-ever clinic director to anti-abortion crusader. Today, Johnson is the founder of And Then There Were None, an organization “designed to assist abortion clinic workers in transitioning out of the industry.” Both the film, and Johnson’s activism, centre on her account of a revelatory moment: the day she was called to assist in a surgical abortion for the first time. We are asked to believe that despite running the Planned Parenthood clinic for years, and despite having undergone two abortions herself, Johnson was somehow never really aware of what transpired in the procedure rooms. As the movie’s tagline says, “What she saw changed everything.”
The veracity of this moment has been questioned, most thoroughly by a Texas Monthly reporter, Nate Blakeslee, who examined Planned Parenthood’s records from the relevant time period. The records did not reference any abortion of a thirteen-week fetus, as Johnson describes in her book. Blakeslee’s investigation was published in 2010, shortly after Johnson made headlines across the country with her resignation. She did not publicly respond to the Texas Monthly article following its publication. Now, as the film brings more mainstream attention to her Christian celebrity, Johnson has pushed back hard against Blakeslee findings, asserting that the organization falsified documents. Johnson maintains that the group often has paperwork “deceptively altered.” Planned Parenthood is not, she wrote at conservative online magazine The Federalist, a “trustworthy organization.”
The routine doctoring of medical records is unlikely, but then Unplanned doesn’t seem all that concerned with playing fair, even though the filmmakers refer to it as an “inspiring true story.” The movie is, in fact, as gory as any slasher flick. In one scene, Johnson arrives home from the clinic, wet from travelling through an impending hurricane, only to have her daughter notice her (somehow) blood-splattered white sneakers. Another scene shows a young teen leaving a dark trail of blood, which soaks through her socks before she nearly dies in the clinic. Johnson suffers her own blood-drenched episode after taking the abortion pill RU-486 to medically induce an at-home termination. Maybe most violent of all is the moment Johnson witnessed an abortion on an ultrasound monitor for the first time. During the scene, a woman cries as her baby-like fetus is sucked up through a tube and, essentially, dismembered. As he completes the procedure, the doctor—played by Anthony Levatino, a real-life abortion provider turned anti-abortion activist—callously remarks, “Beam me up, Scotty.”
The scene, and most of the movie itself, is so unabashedly over the top that it’s tempting to believe nobody will take its agitprop characterization of abortion and abortion providers seriously. “There have been films that treated Nazi doctors conducting evil experiments in concentration camps more sympathetically,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter. And yet, Unplanned played fifty-six theatres across Canada during its opening weekend. The film reportedly sold out in at least two BC theatres, one of them in under ten minutes. An Edmonton moviegoer described her theatre as “very full.” Made with a $6 million (US) budget, the film has grossed more than $18 million (US) across North America. Advance screenings were not held for media. I saw the film at 3 p.m. on a Friday at Cineplex’s Yonge-Dundas theatre, located at Toronto’s bustling tourist intersection. That I could see it in Toronto at all is due to a decision made by Cineplex CEO, Ellis Jacob, who stated in an open letter that here in Canada “we don’t shy away from our differences—we embrace them.”
Fair enough. But the film Cineplex found itself screening wasn’t designed to spark thoughtful, searching conversations about a divisive subject. As many reviewers have noted, Unplanned is instead best understood as propaganda. The acting oscillates between wooden and overwrought, the messaging is heavy handed, the pacing plods. As propaganda, the movie is effective. It’s a 106-minute a love letter to the anti-abortion movement, a morale booster meant to galvanize believers, particularly as both Canada and the US head into elections. The furor over Unplanned—it attracted protests and calls for theatres to pull the film—might cause some to say, “Relax, the movie’s histrionics won’t win over those who already support reproductive rights.” But such support is hardly unassailable.
While 77 percent of Canadians believe abortion should be permitted, according to a 2017 Ipsos Reid poll, only 53 percent say a woman should be able to have one whenever she wants. That latter number suggests that, while people support women’s freedom as a concept, they can waver on the details. Some people may feel a woman needs her doctor’s permission; others want some protection for the fetus. Others think abortion is only permissible if a woman has been raped. That Canadians who back abortion also back restrictions on abortion should give pro-choice activists concern. What it suggests is that even supporters can swayed, and distortion and misrepresentation can have an effect. What is Unplanned, after all, but a movie about the birth of a believer, an abortion advocate turned skeptic? It says, Look at Abby! She saw the light. So can you.
Abortion clinics were illegal in Canada before 1988, the year the Supreme Court struck down our previously restrictive laws. But decriminalization has not lead to easy, universal access. Less than 20 percent of hospitals in Canada provide abortions. There are no private abortion clinics in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, PEI, or any of the three territories. And, while all of those jurisdictions have hospitals that do provide the service, PEI only started to do so in 2017—after a nearly thirty-five-year hiatus. Some provinces have also placed limits on funding the procedure in clinics, including in Ontario. New Brunswick won’t fund abortions that take place in clinics at all. Reproductive rights, in other words, are not as unfettered as many Canadians believe.
Federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer has repeatedly said that, while he is against abortion, he won’t reopen the debate. Recently, in May, he said that any talk about a Conservative threat to abortion rights is “typical Liberal desperation.” Scheer was responding to a letter Liberals sent supporters about twelve Conservative MPs who had attended an anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill (at which Abby Johnson was a speaker). That same month, Conservative MPs stayed seated as other parties stood to applaud a Bloc Québécois MP who said, in a motion underscoring that women should be able to get an abortion for any reason, that “a woman’s body belongs to her and her alone.” The motion followed media reports that dozens of Canadian women were forced to travel to the US to access abortion services. So perhaps Scheer won’t reopen the debate, but as long as it remains a taboo topic—something to be debated as either legal or criminal—it seems unlikely that we’ll see other parties run on a platform of abortion and birth-control services.
While we remain stuck in this stalemate, the anti-abortion movement, both here and in the US, is working hard to reposition itself as the only movement that truly cares about all women. In 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I attended the March for Life rally, conference, and expo in Washington. Everywhere I looked, the anti-abortion movement looked hip, young, and feminist. I saw bright-pink protest signs that read, “Real feminists reject abortion” and others that read, “True feminists protect human life.” Urban Outfitters–type T-shirts proclaimed, “This is what a pro-life feminist looks like.” The intended message behind all this is perhaps best summed up by another protest sign I saw: that the so-called pro-life feminist is better because she cares about women’s rights from “womb to tomb.”
This rebranding of the anti-abortion movement is threaded throughout Unplanned. In it, the one constant in Johnson’s character is that she deeply cares about women’s welfare. Her evolution is that she learns the “right” way to care about them. The clinic’s patients in the film are young, sad, pretty, and largely white. Often, their partners, parents, or lovers have forced them to come. They often do not want to be there and are deeply conflicted about the procedure. In the film, Johnson cynically admits that “part of my job as clinic director was selling abortions, and I was really good at it.” We don’t see any women that are sure of their choice, who are relieved. The one exception is also one of the few Black patients in the movie, a young woman who arrives at the clinic with her daughter. She walks coolly into the clinic as her family prays and wails behind her, telling her not to do it.
At its core, Unplanned exists to tell the anti-abortion movement the best stories of itself. In the film, the movement condemns the violent actions of some anti-abortion protestors. It does not understand why anyone would murder abortion provider George Tiller. It laughs at itself when the Planned Parenthood clinic turns on its sprinklers, spraying the anti-abortion protestors praying (and filming) at the property’s fence. Its members are unfailingly kind, compassionate, and forgiving. They are this generation’s civil-rights activists. Or so they imply, anyway. In the movie, long before Johnson does what we’re to believe is the right thing, her parents and husband all remind her, at every turn, that they don’t agree with her choices; they believe abortion is wrong. They are Good People. Abby is a Lost Person.
In contrast, Cheryl—the clinic director before Johnson is promoted to that same role—is comically evil, the stone-cold baby killer Johnson must triumph over or else become. Cheryl has no children of her own. When she notices that Johnson is pregnant, she responds that “we could take care of that.” Later on, after Cheryl goes on to work at the corporate offices, she announces that all the clinics must double their number of abortions to raise profits. Johnson replies that the company is a nonprofit, and Cheryl then hisses that nonprofit is a “tax status,” not a “business model.” When Johnson argues that the organization’s goal should be to make abortion as rare as possible, Cheryl, comparing Planned Parenthood to a restaurant chain, quips that the procedure is the organization’s money driver, its “fries and soda.” So, Unplanned seems to ask, who’s the fake feminist now?
At the end of the move, after Johnson quits, her abortion clinic closes. One of the main anti-abortion activists in the movie—the one who helps Johnson “get out”—asks a grinning bulldozer driver if he’s ready to tear down the building. The man responds, “Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.” Johnson is shown placing a letter to what she now refers to as her two “unborn children” on the fence, along with two roses. She appears to now regret her two abortions, even though both pregnancies were with her first husband, a man shown to be abusive. In a movie that makes a goal of obliterating nuance, it’s unsurprising that Unplanned doesn’t grapple with the question of where Johnson’s life would be if she hadn’t terminated her pregnancies. A postscript before the credits tells the audience that real-life Johnson is expecting her eighth child. In my theatre, people cheered.
I’ve heard people ask, Why even talk about this? Why even give the movie air? We might remember that Henry Morgentaler’s Toronto clinic was firebombed in 1992. When he received the Order of Canada in 2008, other recipients returned their medals in protest. And he faced numerous death threats before his death in 2013. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from our neighbours to the south: do not underestimate a movement just because you believe in the strength of your own message. Once we stop talking about our rights, propaganda is all that’s left.