Every few years the religious right releases a movie that seems to appeal enormously to its intended audience. The Left Behind series did this. So did Passion of the Christ. This year, it’s Unplanned.
The movie focuses on the tale of a real person, Abby Johnson, a former director of Planned Parenthood, who claims she left the organization after witnessing a 13-week abortion on an ultrasound. The fetus, she claims, appeared to be moving away from the doctor’s probe, struggling for its life. Johnson says she quit as a result and became a prominent and outspoken convert to the anti-choice cause.
What is irritating about the movie is that it is presented as fact, even though that does not seem to be the case.
Johnson’s story, at least as she told it, was largely debunked by Nate Blakeslee back in 2010. Three days before her sudden conversion, Johnson had been given a poor performance review and seemed likely to be fired. She has claimed this was because the clinic was increasing the number of abortions it performed to make more money. Planned Parenthood has declined to speak further about why she was disciplined, but says that any increase in abortions was due to patient demand for the newly available abortion pill.
The day she left the clinic, Johnson posted on her social media:
Here’s the deal. I have been doing the work of two full time people for two years. Then, after I have been working my whole big butt off for them and prioritizing that company over my family, my friends and pretty much everything else in my life, they have the nerve to tell me that my job performance is “slipping.” WHAT???!!! That is crazy. Anyone that knows me knows how committed I was to that job. They obviously do not value me at all. So, I’m out and I feel really great about it!
Those are very valid reasons to feel upset, but they do not exactly sound like reasons related to a newfound faith in the consciousness of an embryo.
Nor does the fact that, as Blakeslee reported at the time, "According to testimony at that hearing [when Planned Parenthood took her to court], on the day she quit her job, Johnson told two young co-workers that the Coalition for Life could find them jobs, just as it had offered to do for her. All they had to do, one of the young women testified, was say they could no longer work at Planned Parenthood because of a 'moral conflict.'”
How generous of them.
Perhaps more importantly, there are no records indicating the ultrasound-assisted abortion she claims to have witnessed took place when she said she experienced her revelation. Her description of the woman it was performed on were vague (she said simply “a black woman” and declined to elaborate) and the only black woman who had an abortion around the time Johnson described was six weeks along, not 13.
And if she had, well, there’s absolutely no evidence that a 13-week fetus has the neurological complexity to do anything as advanced as “fight for its life.” The brain connections required to feel pain don’t develop until 24 weeks. Consciousness, such as would be required to do the fighting for its life Johnson describes, also does not develop until around that period. Scientific American reports that:
Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation.
Now, that does not mean that someone could not look at an ultrasound and perceive an embryo responding in a certain way.
People have emotional responses to ultrasounds, because they apply human traits to something many of them are already thinking of as human. They see a resemblance to their relations (“he looks like Uncle Jim!”), babies attempting to high-five them, and really, whatever other attributes they might like to imagine their progeny having. Forming a bond with the embryo inside you is natural. That’s true whether it’s by fancifully imagining that it enjoys waving to you through the ultrasound, or thinking that it enjoys your favorite kind of music.
That is why movies like this, and The Silent Scream, a 1985 propaganda film that claimed to show a 12-week fetus struggling for its life before being aborted, are effective. The Silent Scream was debunked in 1985. At the time, five medical experts weighed in to the New York Times explaining that the fetus was merely showing reflexive activity, and one doctor of the Yale University School of Medicine explained, "There is no evidence to indicate that the fetus has the capability of purposeful movement, has the capability to perceive the things that (Dr. Nathanson) said it was perceiving, to struggle against whatever he said it was struggling against.''
The New York Times reported, “Three physicians provided by the National Right to Life Committee tried to rebut the [doctor's] testimony, and couldn't.”
Despite the fact that this film has been proven to be deliberately misleading for longer than I’ve been alive, conservatives still cite it as proof of abortion’s evil. Many are rather indifferent to whether they are citing fact or fiction.
I do wonder whether Johnson saw The Silent Scream, given that her own story seems to mirror it so closely.
But that does not appeal to trouble Unplanned filmmakers, who claim they want the same treatment from the press as was given to the popular documentary RBG, about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I might suggest that the treatment is different because one is based on documented facts, and the other is not.
If a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg was based on the notion that she had the ability to shoot lasers out of her eyes, I would probably think it was not exactly a faithful retelling of history, as it denies known science. (That is not to say I would not see it. I would 100 percent see it, and go as Ruth Laser Ginsburg for Halloween.)
Ultimately, despite their repeated claims that “facts don’t care about your feelings!”, all conservatives do with movies like Unplanned is attempt to rehash long-discredited emotional appeals. The terrifying part is that it might actually work.