Unplanned, which was released in the U.S. in March, is based on the 2011 memoir of American anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, a former director of a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic. One of its most deceptive and blood-soaked scenes depicts the day Johnson “saw something that changed everything,” according to a synopsis on Unplanned’s website. That something was an abortion, during which Johnson says she saw a fetus at 13-weeks gestation “fighting for its life.” Which is impossible: A fetus does not feel pain until at least 24 weeks, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (That Johnson actually witnessed the procedure at all has been called into question.)
A zero-star review in the Globe and Mail questioned how a “malicious and potentially dangerous piece of religious and political propaganda could have made its way into this world.” Indeed, even the trailer can’t hide the filmmakers’ bias, depicting abortion as traumatic and dangerous, and vilifying Planned Parenthood execs.
A handful of grassroots pro-choice protests have been organized for Friday's opening night.
Cineplex, Canada’s largest chain of movie theatres, has defended its choice to show Unplanned at 14 of its some 1,700 locations. When Refinery29 reached out for comment, a Cineplex representative directed us to an open letter written by Cineplex president and CEO Ellis Jacob and published on Twitter. “The decision to move forward with screenings of this particular film was a complicated one and it was not made easily or lightly,” In this instance, he added, “many of us will have to set aside our own personal beliefs and remember that living in a country that censors content, opinions and points of view because they are different from our own is not a country that any of us would want to live in.”
In addition to Cineplex, several independent theatres are also screening the movie, according to BJ McKelvie, president of Cinedicom, the Fredericton, NB-based company distributing the film in Canada.
McKelvie, who is also a pastor, says he approached the filmmakers directly when he learned that another Canadian distributor had shot down the Christian studio-backed film. “The movie lined up with my faith,” he says, adding that his company releases a wide variety of films. “It really is a business decision. If pro-choice groups had a movie, they could bring it to me and I would distribute that too,” he says. McKelvie, who says he’s not against a woman’s right to choose whether or not she wants an abortion, added that he can’t see the movie influencing abortion legislation in Canada. Abortion has been legal here since 1988.
That’s not the point, argues Joyce Arthur, executive director of the non-profit, privately funded Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. “We’ve had 30 years of free, safe legal abortion here. This movie, especially coming in an election year, the whole point is to bring it back into debate,” she says. Arthur says she's worried about the men and women working at clinics and hospitals. “We don’t buy the arguments that the movie is free speech because we’re sure it’s going to incite some harassment and violence against [abortion] providers.”
And people, in the United States at least, are tuning in. Since the movie premiered on March 29, it’s made $18 million USD at the box office. Not a blockbuster to be sure, but in a country where women’s reproductive rights are already at risk (a handful of states have passed “heartbeat” bills, restricting abortions after six weeks when most women don’t even know they’re pregnant), it’s worrying.
Lest we think Canada is immune to reproductive rights rollbacks, there’s a growing anti-abortion movement here. In May, at an anti-abortion rally held in Toronto, Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff told those gathered that he will fight to make abortion “unthinkable” in Canada. This week, Oosterhoff retweeted the open letter from Cineplex about its decision to run Unplanned.