In this spring’s Christian niche-sensation movie “Unplanned,” which was released at the end of March, the actress Ashley Bratcher plays Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood clinic director from Texas who became an anti-abortion activist. (The movie is based on Johnson’s memoir of the same name.) “Unplanned” had a budget of six million dollars and has grossed three times that so far, despite its narrow release and its risky-for-the-faith-community R rating. The ultra-conservative organization Focus on the Family, which warns viewers that there is a joke about nipples in “Detective Pikachu,” has defended its unflinching depiction of “violent realities,” comparing the movie to “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “The Passion of the Christ.” The movie was designed to be a rallying point for religious conservatives: its Web site includes ready-made publicity kits that can be used to organize mass ticket purchases. (Church groups are encouraged to buy out entire showtimes at theatres.) On April 1st, Vice-President Mike Pence praised the movie, tweeting, “More & more Americans are embracing the sanctity of life because of powerful stories like this one.”
About a month after the Vice-President’s tweet, the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, signed a law called HB 481, which will, starting in 2020, effectively prohibit abortion in the state after the sixth week of pregnancy, when doctors can sometimes detect electrical activity in the fetal cells, a signal that is sometimes referred to as a “fetal heartbeat.” This sort of legislation is the pet project of the religious group Faith2Action, whose Web site currently assures readers that Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s presence on the Supreme Court bodes well for so-called heartbeat bills to be upheld at the federal level. Bills similar to Georgia’s have been passed, and in most cases challenged, in Iowa, North Dakota, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Ohio. In Ohio, an eleven-year-old who is carrying her rapist’s child is no longer eligible for an abortion, according to the letter of the new law. Similar bills are on the table in South Carolina and Tennessee.
Liberal women have protested the news from Georgia and elsewhere with panic, horror, rage, and sorrow. At six weeks, which is just two weeks after a missed period if you have a regular menstrual cycle, it’s common to have no idea that you’re pregnant. The fetus in the sixth week of pregnancy, which is roughly four weeks after fertilization, is the size of a pomegranate seed. Many, many women have doubtlessly miscarried around this mark without ever knowing it—they would assume they were just having an unusually heavy period. Nonetheless, Georgia’s law recognizes the fetus, from that point onward, as a “class of living, distinct person,” to be afforded “full legal recognition.” The legislation is written in such a way that people who seek abortions after six weeks could be prosecuted; people who miscarry, even at this incredibly early point, could be investigated for attempting to commit second-degree murder. This feels dystopic, but it is what the doctrine of fetal personhood demands. If the fetus is a person, it is a person who possesses, as Sally Rooney put it in the London Review of Books, “a vastly expanded set of legal rights, rights available to no other class of citizen”—the right to “make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body.” In the relationship between woman and fetus, she wrote, the woman is “granted fewer rights than a corpse.”
The state of Georgia, in the past decade, has issued hundreds of millions of dollars of tax credits per year to the film and TV industry; in March, in an op-ed for Deadline, the actress Alyssa Milano urged the state’s politicians to block HB 481 in the interest of preserving the economic growth that has come to the state from Hollywood investment. Soon afterward, Ashley Bratcher, who lives in Georgia, responded, with her own Deadline op-ed. “For the latter part of a year I’ve watched as women I’ve admired, like you, spoke out in regards to women’s rights, more specifically women’s reproductive rights,” she wrote. “With radical laws like the ones in New York and Vermont being passed,” she went on, alluding to New York’s Reproductive Health Act and Vermont’s constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to abortion, “it’s more critical than ever that we are using our voices to fight for the rights of women. One problem, you’re forgetting about the rights of women within the womb. If feminism is all about equal rights, then where are her rights?”
Bratcher, who has mostly acted in Christian movies since her first lead role, in the religious romance “Princess Cut,” from 2015, added that she had recently learned that her own “life was spared on an abortion table.” She had become more anti-abortion since filming “Unplanned,” she explained. And she invited Milano, “mother to mother,” to see her movie, writing, “Abby Johnson’s testimony changed my life. Who knows, maybe it could change yours too.”
For a long time, abortion opponents have used the argument that abortion hurts women and their fetuses, and that curtailing it, through ever-growing layers of regulation, is in the interest of both mother and child. Lately, as Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State, noted recently in the Times, activists and legislators are framing abortion as a zero-sum game. It’s more honest, in a way: you cannot ban abortion without endangering the lives of people who become pregnant, and you cannot protect reproductive rights without accepting that fetal lives will end. But there is simply no getting around the phenomenal messiness of reproduction—the incredible violence of pregnancy even in the best-case scenario, the fact that women are asked to leach their own bones and blood for it, the awesome and terrible ability of the body to create life as well as destroy it. The recent wave of legislation depends on the ability of its proponents to ignore the actual ramifications of these laws. (How will Georgia deal with a pea-size “citizen” contained within an undocumented woman?) Ohio’s abortion bill approvingly singles out as worthy of insurance coverage a “procedure for an ectopic pregnancy, that is intended to reimplant the fertilized ovum into the pregnant woman’s uterus.” Ectopic pregnancy is a complex and potentially fatal condition in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. No such procedure exists.
I believe that there should be no legal restrictions on abortion whatsoever, and that belief has intensified the more I have learned about late abortions. But I am intimately acquainted with, and sometimes sympathetic to, the conviction that life begins at conception—the idea that a clump of tissue, generated even under the most unfortunate and cruel of circumstances, shows God working the most sacred miracle on Earth. That’s what I was taught, growing up in Texas, in the sort of church community that bought out theatres for “The Passion of the Christ,” and that reiterated, in songs and in sermons, that God knit each of us together in our mother’s womb. I don’t live near a community of those convictions and that size anymore: within a few weeks after the release of “Unplanned,” the closest theatres to my Brooklyn apartment that were showing the movie were on Long Island and in New Jersey. Soon after that, all the tri-state-area showtimes disappeared. Eventually, I found a shady bootleg of “Unplanned” on a streaming site that flashed ads for the Russian gambling service 1XBET.
Fans of “Unplanned” have attributed its success to the way that it sheds light on hidden realities. One of the hidden realities that it somewhat inadvertently showcases is the existence of a large contingent of conservative Christian women who grow up pro-life but seek out abortions when they need them. Many of these women, who tend to be reticent about their personal histories in this regard, have reacted with emotional intensity to this movie, which seems to have delivered a sort of harrowing but cathartic healing to Christian women who have, as they put it, “lost children to abortion.” Abby Johnson, who is played by Bratcher with alert nuance, gets her first abortion early in college, at Texas A&M, after she, a small-town innocent, is bowled over by an older guy in her apartment building. Later, she marries him, and then he cheats on her on Valentine’s Day. The need for a divorce and the need for a second abortion arise at the same time.
Emma Elle Roberts, in “Unplanned.”
Photograph Courtesy Everett Collection
Between these two procedures, Abby is recruited to Planned Parenthood at a college job fair by a pretty blond representative in pigtails and a pink cowboy hat. (Nearly all the women in the movie are thin, white, and attractive, with carefully blown-out hair.) Abby is hesitant, but the representative tells her that Planned Parenthood works to keep abortion safe, legal, and rare, and that no one should be able to tell women what to do with their bodies. On her first day as a volunteer clinic escort, protesters harangue the patients: one of them is dressed as the Grim Reaper, and another screams that the women should’ve kept their legs closed. These people are not our heroes; the true anti-abortion movement, “Unplanned” suggests, is made up of enlightened, compassionate Christians, not zealots barking insults through bullhorns. The movement’s future won’t come from hating women, as liberals always accuse anti-abortion activists of doing. It comes from loving them, and their unborn children, enough to, for example, shore up support for nationwide legal prohibitions by getting your church to see “Unplanned.”
There’s a relatively edgy sleight of hand with the movie’s handling of Abby’s pro-choice rhetoric: it presents it as convincing and sincere. It’s just that—as the story slowly “reveals,” everything she and her colleagues are saying is supposedly wrong. A co-worker reminds Abby that a fetus in the thirteenth week of pregnancy can’t feel pain. But then Abby views an abortion procedure being performed, on ultrasound, and watches the fetus recoil, squirm, and fight for its life. (The medical plausibility of this anecdote has been strongly disputed by physicians, and the substance of Johnson’s story has been contradicted by former colleagues and journalists who have accessed records from Johnson’s clinic in Bryan, Texas. On the night Johnson quit the clinic, she wrote a note on Facebook that acknowledged that her superiors had said that her “job performance was ‘slipping.’ ”)
Over iced-tea lunches, Abby repeatedly defends her job to her conservative parents: she won’t apologize for a job that helps women in crisis, she says. But if that’s really what Planned Parenthood is about, the movie suggests, then how would you explain the clinic director who, fearing a P.R. problem, refused to call an ambulance for a girl with a perforated uterus? (It’s not clear that this scene is even meant to portray a real-life event, and major complications in first-trimester abortions occur at a rate of less than half a per cent.) Abby comes to realize that her talking points are hollow. Arguing, on camera, with a protester, she says that Planned Parenthood fights for civil rights, just like the people who fought against slavery and the Holocaust. The protester lights up with “gotcha” energy, adopting a tone that shows up in Bratcher’s op-ed at Deadline: If you’re so concerned about death and injustice, if you’re so concerned about rights and protection, then what about the injustice and the death visited upon the unprotected unborn?
Abby is soon converted, trading in one kind of unshakable righteousness for another. She quits her job and joins the protesters—the polite ones—on the other side of the clinic fence. Describing the activists at the Coalition for Life, she says, “They just sat and listened while I cried. No judgment, no condemnation.” (It’s hard to say whether the movie understands the irony of this statement, given that Planned Parenthood staffers do this with pro-life patients all the time, and the anti-abortion movement demands judgment and condemnation from a legal standpoint, if not necessarily an emotional one.) Abby basks in the purity of dedicating herself to unrealized potential: the unborn soul is so precious in this interpretation of Christianity, deemed innocent in a way that an actual living child could never be. Abby’s old Planned Parenthood clinic is shut down, and the principal financier of “Unplanned” gets a cameo as a construction worker with an American-flag sticker on his hard hat: he bulldozes the clinic, and says, amid cheering from onlookers, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.” (Johnson’s actual clinic was shut down in 2013, in a wave of legislation-induced closures that spanned the state.) Abby gives a speech, clutching two roses, which represent the unborn children she sacrificed on the “altar of convenience.” And then she goes back to her newly honest existence, with her handsome anti-choice husband and the daughter whom she adores. She returns to a life that was made possible, as so many are, by abortion.
Anti-abortion propaganda, like “Unplanned,” or like “Gosnell,” the transparently racist, repulsive criminal-justice movie that was recently screened in Donald Trump’s White House, is produced to have an impact. One in four American women will have an abortion, ninety-one per cent of them within the first trimester, either through the administration of oral medication or through an in-clinic vacuum-aspiration procedure that takes around ten minutes. For many women, an abortion is not only non-traumatic but a life-altering blessing. Most, however, don’t talk about it much; these movies, then, can slide in with ultrasound images of a sentient, desperate thirteen-week fetus—or, in the case of “Gosnell,” which I regretfully paid to stream on my laptop, graphic descriptions of an abortion performed via the insertion of a “ball of blades” into the uterus—and present this as the reality of what abortion is. (Before Roe v. Wade was decided, the horrific abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell tested out this hideous experimental device on more than a dozen women. “What Gosnell did and what I do may both result in ended pregnancies, but there is no other parallel,” a friend who provides abortions at Planned Parenthood told me. “I am not a belief-free, pregnancy-ending monster; I walk with my patient into a gray area where we actively engage with the ethics of the thing, and I’m guided by a clear conviction in someone’s right to bodily autonomy, and to live their life on their own terms, healthy and free of harm.”)
In the minds of their creators, these movies are counterprogramming to mainstream liberal culture. (“America wants abortion,” Abby’s manager spits at her. “That’s why we exist.”) But there is no equivalent to “Unplanned” or “Gosnell” on the left. The movie “Obvious Child,” starring Jenny Slate, which came out in 2014, received good reviews, and made $3.3 million, took on abortion as a subject, as have a handful of recent television shows, including “Girls,” “Scandal,” “Jane the Virgin,” and “Shrill.” But whatever radicalism existed in these stories involved framing abortion as ordinary. Propaganda involves fear; it invokes violence. It’s hard to imagine that Hollywood would touch a dramatic screenplay about a woman who died carrying a non-viable fetus to term. And it would be difficult even to make a galvanizing narrative out of the loss that seeps in slowly, in the course of years and even decades, when your choices are nonconsensually foreclosed. In any case, I wouldn’t want to watch a movie about abortion that treats me the way “Unplanned” treats its right-wing viewers, and I also don’t think that movie would ever be made.
But movies like “Unplanned” probably will continue to be made, at least until Roe v. Wade is overturned, which is what much of the anti-abortion legislation currently in American statehouses is trying to accomplish. That’s the intention behind the draconian law that was passed this week, in Alabama, which bans abortion at any stage of pregnancy, with almost no exceptions. The law threatens doctors who perform abortions with up to ninety-nine years in prison. The Missouri state senate just passed a bill banning abortions at eight weeks, with no rape or incest exceptions. A bill that failed in Texas last month would have allowed doctors who perform abortions and women who receive them to be charged with criminal homicide, which, in Texas, is punishable by death. This, the bill’s author Tony Tinderholt said, would bring “equal treatment to unborn human beings under the law,” and also force women to be “more personally responsible.” (The fact that all unwanted pregnancies are precipitated by men seems to perpetually escape them.) The view that every fetus is sacrosanct can be shrouded, as “Unplanned” was, in the glow of love and holiness. But, as our country’s mostly male legislators are no longer trying to conceal, it is inseparable from the idea that women are born sinners—born murderers, even. What other conclusion could you draw from a body that was designed, in twenty per cent of pregnancies, to end the life it might otherwise sustain?