Controversy over anti-abortion movie "Unplanned" comes to Mystic

Mystic — The Facebook page of Mystic Luxury Cinemas last week was peppered with both people thanking the theater for its courage and others saying they will boycott it for screening what they called anti-abortion propaganda.

Engagement has been high on posts about "Unplanned," a new movie based on Abby Johnson's 2011 memoir of the same name.

Johnson worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, for eight years, rising to clinic director, before abruptly defecting to the anti-abortion movement. She points to her first experience viewing an ultrasound during an abortion, on Sept. 26, 2009, as the final straw that caused her to leave the nonprofit health provider.

Mystic Luxury Cinemas is one of only six theaters in Connecticut screening the movie, which is in a five-day run that ends Tuesday.

"I don't have a position on the film either way; I just know we received many, many phone calls asking us to screen this film," said Bill Dougherty, the cinema owner. He said that anyone who knows him knows he is "as independent as it comes," and if the other side came in wanting a movie played, he would show the same respect.

"What if there is a film I don't agree with that everyone wants to see?" he questioned, without giving any views on abortion. "I have an obligation to the public."

One person boycotting the theater because of this is Lee White, a Groton resident — and freelance food writer for The Times weeklies, which are owned by The Day — who volunteered at Planned Parenthood in Worcester, Mass., in the 1980s and in Norwich in the '90s.

"I am against any censorship, but I am very pro-boycott, and I think the best thing you can do when something is so wrong and so unfair is you boycott," White said.

She has held the hands of people having abortions, and she never remembers any blood or pain or problems, all of which are depicted in "Unplanned." White has not seen the movie.

Anti-abortion advocates happy to see viewpoint reflected in local theater

Conservative news sites reported that Google had labeled the movie as "Drama/Propaganda" last Thursday but changed it to just "Drama" on Friday.

The Christian distribution company Pure Flix released the $6 million-budget film, produced in association with the Right to Life League of Southern California. The end of the movie gives a number to text for people who have had an abortion or helped others have abortions.

Debating those on Facebook who call the movie propaganda was Melinda Brown, a Ledyard resident and member of the Engaging Heaven Church in New London. She and her husband, who attended their first March for Life in Washington this year and filmed testimonials, saw the movie in Mystic on Saturday.

Brown said seeing the movie increased her resolve to share her own story: that when she was pregnant in 1997, a genetic counselor said it looked like her twins would have Down syndrome and recommended abortion. Her reaction was "absolutely not," and she gave birth to two healthy babies who don't have Down syndrome.

As of Sunday morning, ticket sales for "Unplanned" had not met expectations, Dougherty said. But he did sell out two theaters for a private screening on March 28. That was in addition to six screens that Connecticut Right to Life and Second Saturday Films sold out for a private screening at Regal Waterford the same night.

Margaret Becotte, of Connecticut Right to Life, said of the movie, "It does show the care and concern of the women working in Planned Parenthood, and that they really, really, truly think they're helping women, and in the end it shows our side of saying, 'That's not really helping women.'"

She sees the movie as "a good portrayal of what Planned Parenthood is really all about, which is about money."

Another person to see the movie on March 28 was Lisa Maloney, executive director of a New London pregnancy resource center that's part of Care Net, a national network of evangelical Christian, anti-abortion centers.

She liked that except for Johnson's supervisor, the movie didn't make Planned Parenthood workers "look like monsters," and that it "did a good job with separating out the people who would stand out there respectfully and pray" from protesters who shout at people walking into clinics.

"I was encouraged," Maloney said. "My hope is that conversations about abortions can happen more often and more respectfully."

Claims in the movie come into question

Kafi Rouse, vice president of public relations and marketing for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, strongly criticized the movie's accuracy.

"Regarding the entire film, the claims are false. There's not one part that I can say is true," she said, adding, "I saw some of it, but because it was so false, I did not want to watch the rest of it."

In the movie, Johnson's supervisor — depicted as a corrupt corporate executive — talks about abortion as a moneymaker and urges employees to increase abortion rates.

For 2009, the year Johnson left, Planned Parenthood affiliates reported that abortions accounted for less than 3 percent of overall services, Politifact reported, but it's difficult to determine what share of total Planned Parenthood revenues come from abortions.

In "Unplanned," Johnson describes what she saw on the pivotal ultrasound as a baby "twisting and fighting for its life."

A panel appointed by the London-based Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the former president of the International Fetal Medicine and Surgery Society all believe a fetus cannot experience pain prior to 24 weeks, the New York Times reported in 2013.

At the request of Texas Monthly magazine shortly after Johnson left Planned Parenthood, staff at the Bryan clinic — which closed in 2013 — checked their records from the date Johnson marked as her turning point and found no ultrasound-guided abortions performed.

The real-life Johnson said the patient was a black woman who was 13 weeks pregnant, while the Texas Department of State Health Services records show none of the surgical abortions performed that day were on patients beyond 10 weeks, Texas Monthly reported in 2010. The only black woman seen that day was in her sixth week, too early for a doctor to need an ultrasound.

Johnson suggested to Texas Monthly that Planned Parenthood could have doctored the Induced Abortion Report Form sent to the department.

Rouse said in a statement, "Planned Parenthood is proud to provide expert, high-quality health care to our patients, including safe and legal abortion, in a safe and compassionate environment. We ensure our patients receive accurate information about all of their options so they can make their own, fully informed decisions about their health, their family, and their future."

She told The Day of the movie, "Words matter. People look to different forms of media for information, and false information can lead to poor health outcomes for people."

NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut Executive Director Sarah Croucher does not see the movie as having "any particular impact," placing far greater concern on efforts to impose abortion restrictions at the federal level.

"It's a movie that's been made as a piece of anti-choice propaganda," Croucher said. "That much is very clear, in terms of how it's been funded and how it's been promoted."

e.moser@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the dates of the screening in a photo caption.

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