The anti-abortion lobby is stepping up its game across New Zealand following moves within parliament to decriminalise abortion and remove restriction on access. They have always been a small but vocal and well-funded minority, with strong, primarily conservative Christian networks. Recently, we’ve seen massive billboards, advertising, and dozens of sold-out film screenings announced around the country of Unplanned – the “real life” story of American Planned Parenthood employee Abby Johnson, and the “crisis of conscience” she experienced.
I use air quotes because Abby Johnson’s credibility has been seriously called into question. Further, the representation of Planned Parenthood, and the way in which abortion was portrayed in the film, is blatantly, obnoxiously false.
Planned Parenthood is portrayed as a for-profit abortion business that incentivises its workers to “sell” abortions to apprehensive young pregnant women. Insensitive doctors literally hold down terrified unwilling women while they enact this “horrific” procedure on them. Blood drips onto the floorboards. Unplanned is a horror movie, and if this is the anti-abortion lobby’s favourite new piece of propaganda, that only goes to show how much their campaign and ideology relies on deception, lies, and fearmongering.
When the procedure is performed by a professional, abortion is safer than childbirth. According to Jen Villavicencio, an obstetrician-gynecologist interviewed in an article by the Huffington Post, it’s safer than a tooth extraction. Planned Parenthood is a non-profit health provider which provides a wide array of sexual and reproductive healthcare services, not just abortions. What is unsafe are the actions that desperate pregnant people perform on themselves, to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies when safe abortion services aren’t available to them. Coathangers are unsafe. Back alley abortions with uncertified providers using unsterilised equipment, that’s unsafe. We’ve all seen Dirty Dancing. These were the conditions that led feminists to demand safe, legal, free abortion services.
Despite this, Planned Parenthood is facing funding cuts and closures across the United States from the emboldened anti-abortion lobby and Republican government. Various states are trying to outlaw abortion, and Texas lawmakers are discussing making it punishable by death. Texas is where this film’s alleged events take place. Movements against Planned Parenthood are not only an attack on women’s rights but an attack on healthcare more broadly, which is why slander against it, even fictionalised slander, is especially dangerous.
The anti-abortion lobby is rolling this film out all over the world. In New Zealand, the film is being distributed through an independent third-party distributor called FanForce. Other films among this company’s repertoire include The Rise of Jordan Peterson, a documentary about a notorious psychology professor and father-figure to the alt-right. Organise Aotearoa members contacted several cinemas, but they have a contract with these distributors and are unable to turn down business.
Voice For Life in New Zealand ties together anti-abortion networks, which includes Family First and the New Conservative Party. These groups may not seem very significant to onlookers, picketing in small numbers outside the hospital, but last year, they rallied up to a thousand people from all over the country to march on Parliament. There have been recent threats of violence against Labour MP Megan Woods and Abortion Law Reform advocate Terry Bellamak. Threats against Bellamak also betrayed extremely xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes. New Conservative in particular has links to the alt-right movement, a base of violent young white men, “white genocide” conspiracy theorists. Anti-abortion activists might seem like harmless out-of-touch elderly people at first glance, an outdated group with outdated ideas who will die off soon, and who are primarily motivated by genuine concern for the lives of unborn foetuses, but anyone who’s sifted through their Facebook comments, or ventured into their networks, will tell you that this is not the case.
If the anti-abortion lobby in New Zealand is unpopular and marginal, that’s only because of the decades of tireless work by feminists and healthcare advocates who fought for abortion to be recognised as a necessary human right, and who educated the public, debunking the lies and deceptive propaganda of the anti-abortion movement. Not everyone bound up by anti-abortion propaganda is a bad person. I was one of them once, and while I didn’t picket hospitals or health centres, or actively advocate to keep abortion criminalised, I believed quite strongly that abortion was murder, that it was a completely undesirable option that should be avoided. I changed my mind as I learned more. Many people are just ignorant, misled by grifters and conservative millionaires who, regardless of how seriously they take their family values, have a vested interest in stripping women’s rights away and maintaining control of the family. The genuine ignorance of some of its more well-meaning foot-soldiers doesn’t change the reality, that the anti-abortion lobby is part of a violent, right-wing, conservative movement that wants to roll back rights won for women and queer people.
Babies are precious, and the important work that people do to bring children into this world and raise them to adulthood cannot be understated, but it also shouldn’t be taken for granted by anyone. We deserve the right to contribute to society in ways that are fulfilling to us, to recognise where our talents are, to plan our families as we see fit. I believe the Abortion Legislation Bill will pass because the majority of the public opinion is on our side, but there’s a reason it has taken so long, and this regressive movement is not going to go away.
We should never let ourselves be complacent, but we have the truth on our side. The pro-choice movement doesn’t have to rely on lies or deception to build itself. We stand on the shoulders of feminists who dedicated countless hours of unpaid labour to educate, agitate, and organise, and risked their own safety to fight this toxic ideology. Fighting the anti-abortion lobby has never been easier. All we have to do is stand up for our rights, keep telling the truth, and never let ourselves be silenced.
Written by Cáit Ó Pronntaigh, the outgoing Feminist Caucus Coordinator for Organise Aotearoa.