The anti-abortion film Unplanned quietly snuck into fourth place at the box office last weekend, grossing more than $6 million and drawing claims that it will be anti-abortion advocates’ Schindler’s List: “We are the hope, and this movie is our battle cry,” said one.
Unplanned is based on the memoir of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned anti-abortion activist. Johnson claims she had a change of heart after witnessing an ultrasound-guided abortion and abruptly quit her job; others have consistently challenged Johnson’s account of events. Regardless, the movie takes Johnson’s conversion as true, holding her up as the relatable, redemptive heroine.
While the film may be the biggest mainstream release of an anti-abortion movie to date, the reality is that it offers very little that’s new, simply reinforcing the same tropes of decades of other anti-abortion films. Unplanned follows in a long tradition of anti-abortion filmography that relies little on good filmmaking and much more on a heavy-handed combination of religious redemption, misinformation, shock and gore, and traditional ideas of gender and family.
Indeed, one of the film’s opening scenes—the ultrasound-guided abortion that leads to Abby’s conversion—clearly recalls the earliest anti-abortion propaganda film, The Silent Scream (1984). This short film showed an ultrasound during an abortion, with graphic narration provided by Dr. Bernard Nathanson. Like Johnson, Nathanson was a convert: After co-founding NARAL, later in life he became an anti-abortion advocate.
Unplanned uses a similar setup, casting Dr. Anthony Levatino as the taciturn abortion provider who ignores his crying patient, reprimands Abby’s hesitation, and makes a sarcastic joke during the procedure. This is a typical depiction in anti-abortion films, which often portray abortion providers as clueless ideological demagogues or callous predators. Abby’s horror is also driven by the same aspects that Nathanson draws attention to in his commentary 35 years earlier: specifically, that the fetus shows movement away from the thin plastic tube used during the abortion, the medically disproven interpretation that this is an act of self-preservation, or that the very early fetus can experience pain.
In The Silent Scream, the pregnant woman is absent, as the film exclusively focuses on the contents of her uterus, reinforcing the supremacy of the fetus over the woman herself. In Unplanned, the focus is on Abby’s shock; the woman having the abortion is forgotten and becomes a passive victim along with her pregnancy.
As researchers who study how abortion is portrayed on film and television, we’ve spent many hours watching anti-abortion movies to understand what the messages—both overt and less so—that they communicate to their audiences as part of their belief system and worldview. From films that debuted in theaters (Unplanned, 2018’s Gosnell, Voiceless in 2015, October Baby in 2011, 2006’s Bella) to those that went straight to DVD (Sarah’s Choice in 2009, Meant to Be in 2012, and Alison’s Choice in 2016, among others), these productions are rich with myths about abortion.
Such films allege that abortion is physically dangerous (it is not), that abortion often causes deep psychological wounds (it does not), and that viewing an ultrasound is always a pivotal moment in convincing someone of the wrongness of abortion (it is not).
To bolster its message, Unplanned takes every opportunity to focus on the blood and gore of abortion, from the opening scene where the camera pans between the ultrasound of the fetus and blood rushing into a cannula, to depicting Abby’s medication abortion as a harrowing event where she passes large blood clots while sobbing in the shower. Of note, Unplanned is the first anti-abortion film to portray a medication abortion, so it is particularly salient that it is depicted as dangerous. Later, as a clinic employee, Abby manages the case of a young teen pressured into an abortion, and when the doctor perforates her uterus, Abby is encouraged to mislead the girl’s father about why the procedure is taking so long. Gratuitous scenes of clinic staff mopping up blood from the floor and blood soaking the patient’s socks evoke the misconceptions that abortion is a risky, near-fatal procedure and that providers routinely lie to patients about this.
Anti-abortion films do more than serve as vehicles for misinformation about abortion; they construct a distinctly white, Christian, and conservative world, relying particularly on notions of white male saviors and Christian women seeking redemption for past abortions. In almost every film, evangelical Christianity arrives to rescue people from abortion. Rescue might come in the form of a male authority figure, a partner (To Save a Life in 2009 and Voiceless) a friend (Bella) or a religious leader who strives to save women in his life (Sarah’s Choice and Alison’s Choice). Other films focus on white women who’ve had abortions, explicitly stating that the only way for God to forgive them and for them to forgive themselves for their abortions is to counsel others against the procedure (Meant to Be and also Voiceless).
Unplanned doubles down on all of these themes. It features no main characters of color, and the Black women we do see are exaggerated stereotypes. That these white patients and clinic staff ground the story, rather than any women of color, suggests that the film is designed to be accessible to white, anti-abortion viewers. After Abby’s change of heart, she seeks redemption by publicly repenting her own abortions, lamenting “the children I sacrificed at the altar of convenience,” and discouraging others from doing the same. She confesses this in front of a crowd of hundreds, there to cheer the demolition of the clinic where she used to work. In this scene, the filmmakers draw a literal connection between individual repentance and clinic closures—and lay out their desired outcome: to tell change-of-heart stories to motivate their movement and stop abortion.
Onscreen, the anti-abortion movement crafts narratives without regard for science and nuance, providing anti-abortion viewers with renewed fuel for their beliefs. These movies re-educate viewers to an interpretation of events aligned with anti-abortion movement goals in a compelling, narrative way. And they have the infrastructure to continue: PureFlix, the production company behind Unplanned, is a Christian streaming service. It is both a film studio and a distribution site for conservatively themed movies accompanied by homeschool curricula and Church discussion guides.
Even if the only people who flock to theaters to see Unplanned are those already convinced of their stance on abortion, the film’s producers think they have a winning formula for culture change. Advocates eager to counter the inaccuracies spread through these films would be wise to remind audiences that the goal of these films isn’t fidelity to the truth, but distorting facts in service of an anti-abortion agenda, and, ultimately, a white, Christian world.