Sunday 16 June 2019

Unplanned: the anti-abortion film that's scored a box-office hit

Film critics are unimpressed by a movie based on the life of one of America's leading anti-abortion activists, but US audiences have rushed to see it, writes John Meagher

Ashley Bratcher as Abby Johnson in Unplanned
Ashley Bratcher as Abby Johnson in Unplanned
Abby Johnson

It was released with almost no mainstream fanfare one month ago, but an anti-abortion movie has become something of a word-of-mouth sensation in the US.

Unplanned - which is based on the memoir of Abby Johnson, formerly a pro-choice advocate and now fervently opposed to abortion - was the fourth-highest grossing film in the US on its opening weekend. And in its first fortnight, it took $14m at the box office - multiple times what it cost to make.

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It tells the story of Johnson, who, for eight years, had worked for America's leading reproductive health organisation - the century-old Planned Parenthood - and how she experienced a dramatic change of heart after witnessing a medical termination.

Johnson - a mother of seven, who says she had two abortions before the birth of her first child - is now one of the most vocal anti-abortion campaigners in the US and was a keynote speaker at a Pro Life Campaign in Dublin in 2017.

Abby Johnson
Abby Johnson

The success of Unplanned has taken many by surprise, but it has come with several high-profile endorsements, including that of Donald Trump Jr and Ted Cruz, who was the runner-up for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

Vice President Mike Pence - well known for his strong anti-abortion views - tweeted that "more and more Americans are embracing the sanctity of life because of powerful stories like this one".

But the critics haven't been nearly as impressed. "Unplanned," wrote Owen Gleiberman in Variety , "isn't a good movie, but it's effective propaganda - or, at least, it is if you belong to the group it's targeting: those who believe that abortion in America, though a legal right, is really a crime.

"It's hard," Gleiberman added, "to imagine the movie drawing many viewers outside that self-selected demographic."

Anti-abortion campaigners here are said to be keen for the film to be released in Ireland. "It will have a big impact because Johnson's story is so compelling," Niamh Uí Bhriain of The Life Institute told The Irish Catholic. "This is a reality that is having a major impact on audiences in the US.

"All the major TV networks, with the exception of Fox, refused to take out advertisements ahead of its release," the pro-life campaigner said, "so the achievements have been hard won."

Despite Uí Bhriain's hope that the film will be released in this country, it has not yet been submitted to the Irish Film Classification Office. In order for it to be shown in a cinema or for it to receive a DVD release here, the film has to classified by IFCO.

"Typically," a spokesperson says, "a film would be submitted to the office at least three weeks or a month prior to its release, although often films are sent months in advance. There have been a number of media enquiries about this film [Unplanned], but it has not been sent here."

Factually incorrect

In the US, the film received an 'R' rating, meaning anyone up to the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult. The classification - which is due to a gruesome abortion scene - was criticised as too harsh by the producers of the film. In the scene that Johnson's character describes as "the moment that changed everything", a 13-week-old foetus is shown "twisting and fighting for its life".

But some experts say such dramatisation is factually incorrect and completely misleading. Jennifer Villavicencio of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists told the New York Times that the broad scientific consensus is that a foetus cannot feel pain or sense danger that early on in a pregnancy.

"There is no neurological capability for awareness of danger," she said. "That part of the brain is simply not there yet."

The film has also been criticised for its portrayal of Planned Parenthood as a "billion dollar corporation" turning huge profits on the back of abortion. But the organisation, which was founded in 1916, points out that it has always been a non-profit entity, and it says only 3pc of its services are abortion-related.

There have also been questions about the veracity of Johnson's story, which she documented in her 2011 memoir. By her telling, she had a Road to Damascus-like transformation in September 2009, when she assisted a doctor who was performing an abortion for a woman who was 13 weeks pregnant, and was horrified to see, via ultrasound footage, the foetus terminated by a suction technique.

The US online magazine, Salon, reported that she had enthusiastically talked about abortion rights on a radio show the day after she claimed to have assisted at the procedure. And it was later revealed that she had worried she would lose her job at Planned Parenthood, and she subsequently admitted she had been disciplined in work towards the end of her time there.

What's not in doubt is how big a player Abby Johnson has become in the global anti-abortion movement, helped in part by her formidable gift as a public speaker. She was said to have made quite an impression when invited to be guest speaker at the Pro Life Campaign's national conference in 2017.

"I have first-hand experience of working at an abortion clinic," Johnson told the Dublin conference, "and I can tell you that the reality is entirely different to how it is presented. People don't want to think about the brutality of what happens to the baby, but when you've worked in an abortion clinic, there is no escaping what it entails."

"There is surprise and even panic in some quarters that Unplanned has become a box office hit," Maeve O'Hanlon of the Pro Life Campaign says.

"But for others, it comes as no surprise, because for too long, the stories of people who work in the abortion industry have been overlooked while legal abortion was presented in a sanitised and highly protected way.

"The full-on assault on the movie in some sections of the media shouldn't come as a surprise either. The defensiveness and speed of the condemnation tells its own story. Much of it is clearly designed to dissuade people from going to see the movie, rather than offering a balanced critique." 

Unplanned is not the only anti-abortion film to have caused waves in the US. Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer tells the dramatised story of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia-based doctor and abortion provider. Gosnell was convicted in 2013 of murdering three babies, who were born alive during attempted abortions, and of dozens of counts of providing abortions past the legal limit.

The film, which was screened at the White House earlier this month, is based on the book of the same name by pro-life couple Ann McElhinney from Donegal and her Tyrone husband, Phelim McAleer.

The pair wrote the screenplay for the film, but have been dismayed by the fact that much of the media have refused to review the movie.

"Here you have the hottest political topic in America," McAleer said earlier this month, "and it's the subject of a successful movie like this, and still they won't touch it. It's pathetic really."

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