LONDON, ONTARIO – Here’s an encounter I had about 35 years ago which I’ve called to mind so frequently over the years that I think I must regard it as emblematic; as one of my first encounters with an obnoxious tendency that has only proliferated since then. I was standing with a crowd of other human beings at a transfer point at Dundas and Richmond one afternoon, waiting for nearly all of the riders to disembark from a very full bus before we’d be able to file on.
This scrawny young man next to me was sporting a rather bizarre and obviously homemade fashion accessory. He had somehow driven a safety pin through the helmeted head of a plastic toy soldier holding a rifle, and then affixed this clunky olive green accoutrement to his his left ear lobe. I was intrigued by this rather eccentric piece of jewellery and probably had a bemused smile as I tried to fathom if it was supposed to be a statement of the punk ethos or some sort of gender-bending gesture that he was trying on for size. But my silent ruminations were rudely halted when he moved his face right in front of my own and barked at me: “What the fuck are you looking at?”
“Well,” I said, “I find it hard to imagine that you don’t know this already . . . but you’ve got a sort of a soldier figuriney thing hanging from your ear there.”
“Yeh, well I’m not asking you to look at it, am I?”
“Actually, I think a case could be made that you are,” I started to say when he cut me short with a disgusted “Fuck off” and then turned to push his way to the front of the line so he was the first to board the now pretty well emptied bus. He made his way to the very back and when I got on about a minute later, I was happy enough to hang onto an overhead bar somewhere near the front. He’d been a thoroughly unpleasant fellow and our conversation didn’t seem to hold much promise for further elucidation so I wasn’t sorry to let it drop.
But in manifold situations over the ensuing decades, that poor, dim slob has come galumphing back into my memory whenever I confront particularly obtuse people who exhibit such a stark disregard for the truth of a situation that you wonder how they can tolerate the disconnect; how they can function when they live at such odds with reality. Politicians and spokespeople for various social causes make for particularly ripe exemplars of what I call the Self-Awareness Deficit. And the exemplar who really impressed me this week is a certain Robyn Schwarz, co-founder of Pro-Choice London, who led the charge in protesting the London screening – three full months after its American premiere – of Unplanned.
This film - always labelled in press accounts as “controversial” - is based on the best-selling 2010 memoir by American pro-life advocate, Abby Johnson, who had worked at a Texan Planned Parenthood clinic for eight years and eventually became its director before coming to her senses and quitting in shame and disgust. Even after having a child of her own, she was able to continue working there by believing the propaganda that prenatal babies being dismembered and Hoovered away actually don’t feel a thing. But all that changed in September of 2009, when Johnson was called in to assist an ultrasound-guided abortion of a pregnancy that was 13 weeks along. And right there in incriminating black & white on that fan-shaped screen she could unmistakably see a distressed young being that was writhing and twisting to get away from the business end of a vacuum tube.
"For the briefest moment," she wrote in Unplanned, "the baby looked as if it were being wrung like a dishcloth, twirled and squeezed. And then it crumpled and began disappearing into the cannula before my eyes. The last thing I saw was the tiny, perfectly formed backbone sucked into the tube, and then it was gone."
Shattered and sickened by what she had seen but not yet prepared to throw over her livelihood just like that, she managed to go through the motions for a while as she grappled with the implications of her active complicity in work she now understood to be evil. For nine more days she continued to haul herself into the clinic and then finally snapped. No. She shouldn't, couldn’t and wouldn’t do this anymore. And she had no sooner assented to what she knew to be the truth then she suddenly threw in her lot with those tiresome Christian protestors who had regularly stood outside of her clinic in silent prayer during all the years of her employment. (Here in enlightened Ontario, such Christian witness is illegal and there are pro-life martyrs like Linda Gibbons who have spent a major fraction of their lives behind bars because they refuse to submit to such a tyrannical, soul-crimping law.) Now aligned with the pro-life cause, Johnson became Planned Parenthood's worst nightmare; a one-time insider and now defector who knew all of their darkest secrets and practices.
Raised a Baptist, Johnson had become an Episcopalian during her Planned Parenthood years so that she wouldn't have to hear any discouraging sermons about abortion. Once Johnson came out as a pro-life advocate, she no longer felt welcomed there and, with her husband, converted to Catholicism and as of today, the Johnsons are parents of a whopping total of seven children. Convinced that there must be other abortion workers just as confused and conflicted as she used to be, in 2012, Johnson started up And Then There Were None, an advocacy group which has helped more than 500 such workers to leave the industry.
So it isn’t hard to understand how a pro-choice advocate like Robyn Schwarz would not be a member of the Abby Johnson Fan Club. Fair enough. And I guess I can see why she wouldn’t line up at the Masonville Silver City Cineplex to buy a ticket for Unplanned, though it actually might do her some good if she wants to mount a fair argument for her side of the debate to at least hear out and consider the case that the film has to make. By protesting Silver City’s decision to screen a much-derided movie that a lot of people have nonetheless expressed an interest in seeing, Schwarz may even have inadvertently loaned the film a kind of notorious cachet and given it the sort of scandalous buzz which is never bad for business at the movies. I don’t know if we can chalk this up to the 'Schwarz effect' or not but we weren't able to obtain our tickets for Unplanned until later today, four days into its run; all earlier screenings having been sold out.
Schwarz certainly didn't argue the pro-choice cause with a shred of honour when she slimed a film she hadn’t even seen and then maligned London pro-lifers as dangerously violent nut-jobs in an article by Max Martin in last Thursday’s London Free Press (July 11, 2019). Schwarz told Martin, “I’m really sad to hear it’s coming to our community. The film portrays abortion in the most extreme, inaccurate ways. It portrays abortion providers as uncaring, which could not be further from the truth.”
Wow. Does Schwarz think everybody has been living under a rock? The twelve undercover videos that were produced by American pro-life activist David Daleiden in conjunction with the Center for Medical Progress in 2015, pretty well blew the cover off how wonderfully “caring” the “abortion providers” are at Planned Parenthood. Clandestinely filmed interviews with senior executives at the American abortion industry leader (which receives a cool half billion dollars from taxpayers every year, pays its eight top executives an average yearly wage of $300,000, and charges its clients $500 a pop to kill and dispose of prenatal infants) also exposed a profitable little side racket whereby Planned Parenthood was reaping as much as an additional $300 per corpse through the harvesting and illegal sale of organs to medical research companies.
The first video was filmed over dinner at a swish restaurant with a journalist posing as a buyer from one of these research companies. Planned Parenthood’s Senior Director of Medical Research, Deborah Nucatola, explained to her potential customer that, “A lot of people want liver,” and “a lot of people want intact hearts these days.” Asked if these were difficult to procure, Dr. Nucatola took another swig of wine and coolly explained, “You’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, you try to intentionally go above and below the thorax, so that, you know, we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”
Dr. Nucatola went on to explain a nifty little trick Planned Parenthood developed for harvesting intact fetal brains: “With the calvarium [or head], in general, some people will actually try to change the presentation so that it’s not vertex [head first], because when it’s vertex presentation, you never have enough dilation at the beginning of the case, unless you have real, huge amount of dilation to deliver an intact calvarium. So if you do it starting from the breech [feet first] presentation, there’s dilation that happens as the case goes on, and often, the last, you can evacuate an intact calvarium at the end.”
The second video presented an undercover interview with Dr. Mary Gatter, another Planned Parenthood executive, who discussed techniques which make the extermination of fetuses “less crunchy” (thus preserving organs intact) and keep the little battered bodies from looking so “war-torn.” Then the focus switched to marketing. Manifesting all the oily professionalism of a punter working the lot at Bob’s Used Autos, Dr. Gatter haggled with her prospective buyer about the prices to be charged for these barely used organs.
Would it have been any less depressing if the cold-blooded organ marketers featured in those interviews weren’t primarily women? There was a level of dehumanizing abstraction at play (indeed, how else could these handsomely paid ‘professionals’ look at themselves in the mirror?) which we associate more readily with the male of the species.
Federal law in the States prohibits the sale of fetal body parts but does allow a minimal charge to cover costs of shipping, transportation, refrigeration and storage. Obviously those perfunctory charges would be both known and fixed. Gatter admitted in her interview that while they’re careful to tell the public that they’re only harvesting parts for research, it does in fact generate considerable revenue for them. Then Gatter played a coy round of “what are you prepared to pay?” with her client before deciding on a per-organ price (more profitable than selling the whole body in more or less one piece) with the proviso that if she learned that other suppliers were charging more, then she’d be jacking up the price toot sweet. After all, Gatter joked towards the end of their dinner, one of these days she’d “really like to buy a Lamborghini”.
Abby Johnson ably followed up the explosive work of David Daliden and the Center for Medical Progress in the very next year when she published, The Walls Are Talking: Former Abortion Clinic Workers Tell Their Stories (Ignatius Press, 2016) in which renegades from the most grisly industry of them all (most of them with Planned Parenthood), recount the horrors which they routinely witnessed – and perpetrated – on the job.
Later in that Free Press interview, Schwarz switched her focus and grotesquely mis-characterized London pro-lifers as slathering bomb-chucking zealots: “London has not had a strong, vocal, pro-choice presence. We have allowed anti-choice groups to do their work under the assumption that being anti-abortion is not an extreme position, and that’s not true . . . People seeing this movie are seeing it because they already are anti-choice extremists. But there’s a difference between believing those things and being shown an inaccurate, bloody, non-realistic version of abortion. This could incite violence, and that’s a very big concern for us.”
Unplanned is an unashamedly Christian film that has been made on a shoestring budget. Cinematically, I’m not expecting it to be any great shakes. Dramatically, I know it’s not going to be very sophisticated or subtle, and I can tell by the trailer which I caught on the interwebs that there’s going to be one of those gaudy and overblown pop ballads that always make me shudder and cringe and if I’m lucky, they’ll only play it over the end credits which will give me a chance to bolt out the door before it can do me serious harm. In terms of both sappy religiosity and gruesome gynecological content, I guess you’d have to say that I fully expect this film is going to be a bit of a trial.
But let me assure Ms. Schwarz that I am not going so I can get stoked up to commit violence against anyone. More than anything else I am going so that, however awkwardly or cornily or ungraciously, a group of actors and film artists will remind me that I am not alone; that in a society where unprecedented levels of comfort and prosperity depend on the continued killing off of inconvenient human beings, there are others who also recognize and have the courage to speak out against the preeminent evil of our time.
Unplanned is scheduled to run at Silver City Masonville until Thursday, July 18, 2019.
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